Ethics and Philosophy – The Most Ethical Choice is Often The Selfish One

I’ve just started reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I’ve only gotten up to Plato so far (edit: I’m now to Epicurus, who is awesome!), but I find it fascinating. My goal in reading about philosophy is to potentially improve and/or refine my own philosophies, particularly in the field of ethics. To that end, I’d like to sketch out a brief overview of my current take on ethics. I’ll call this the “before,” and hopefully I’ll make another one after I’ve gotten a good overview of the various ethical philosophies which have influenced Western though through the past few millennia. And then hopefully a few more as I continue reading, but we’ll see. Here is my current stance on the question of ethics, in brief:

UPDATE (Jan. 2015): Russell provided little guidance in the field of ethics. After reviewing some of the contemporary writing in the field, I find my thought on this unchanged. Further writing on ethics can be found here.

tl;dr: (1) happiness is all that matters; (2) we are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s; therefore (3) the most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

1. Happiness is All That Matters

There is no higher ideal than the happiness of conscious creatures, or what Sam Harris calls “well-being.” There is no objective morality. Other ideas taken from Sam Harris with which I agree:

  •  The only goal of an ethical system should be to increase the well-being of conscious creatures as much as possible. Nothing else matters.
  •  Well-being (what I call “happiness”) consists of positive mental states. Feeling good = good. Feeling bad = bad. There are no objective criteria to measure well-being. It is entirely dependent upon the perceptions of the creature experiencing it.

These are my premises, and they are largely uncontroversial among skeptics. My goal is not to defend these premises, only to list them. If you are interested in a comprehensive defense of them, I would direct you to Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, linked above. Note: this is not intended as an endorsement of the entire book, just those ideas which I’ve noted above.

2. We are vastly more in control of our own happiness than anyone else’s

My next premise is this: the capacity of human beings to control any person’s happiness other than our own is extremely limited. We cannot “make” anyone but ourselves happy (and sometimes we can’t even do that). Most (though not all) actions we take that are designed to increase another person’s happiness are ineffective at best, and often harmful.

This belief is probably the most vulnerable of mine. The science of happiness is very underdeveloped. I have not encountered any reliable studies which cast doubt on this belief, however I also have very little objective evidence of it. It is mostly something I believe because it has been my experience. I find it largely impossible to force anyone to be happier. The best I have ever accomplished is to assist other people in making themselves happy. To the best of my memory, any time anyone has ever tried to force me to be happy (rather than assist me in making myself happy), it has backfired.

I have, however, had success in making myself happy, and I have witnessed other succeed in making themselves happy. Often, this takes the form of exercising control over my environment to surround myself with things that boost my happiness. Sometimes, it involves doing mental work. Sometimes, it involves taking medication (though it could be argued that this one, at least, can be forced on people, and sometimes is).

3. The most ethical actions that individuals can take are usually those that make themselves happy.

Once the first premise is accepted, it necessarily follows that sacrificing one’s own happiness, unless it results in a commensurate increase in someone else’s happiness (or in one’s own future happiness), is an unethical act.

Once the second premise is accepted, it becomes clear that most of the time, the most ethical action to take is the one that makes yourself happy, as that is where most of your control lies.

However, the conclusion is qualified the way it is because there are many situations where one can assists others in making themselves happy and/or increase the likelihood of another person’s happiness at little or no cost to our own happiness. Such situations include (but are not limited to):

  • collective action, which costs little to each individual but results in broad increases in happiness/well-being, such as raising money for disaster victims
  • situations in which we enjoy the act of helping another person to be happy, often called “love.” Many activists enjoy the work they do advocating on behalf of others, and thus their actions are ethical regardless of whether their efforts are successful
  • situations in which we can increase our own happiness by increasing the general well-being. A functional political system would serve this goal, and this is generally the reason why I support the social justice movements that I do.
  • situations where there is a massive resource imbalance, where a minor sacrifice on the part of the privileged can result in large gains by the underprivileged. An example would be an American who donates money to indigent citizens of Burundi.
  • where a person whose judgment you trust indicates to you that your actions will increase their happiness.
  • situations where what we desire is nearly certain to be harmful to others in proportion to the joy we receive from it (either because it is obvious or because they have told us).

My main rule is that when balancing competing interests, one should weight one’s own happiness as significantly more important than anyone else’s. A sacrifice of one’s own happiness is only ethical where the gains in someone else’s happiness are either (1) very certain AND proportional to the sacrifice required, or (2) exponentially greater than the sacrifice required.

It is, of course, impossible to measure happiness/well-being with any precision, so there is wide latitude for argument about what individual actions are ethical and which are not. As will all coherent ethical reasoning, this system requires us to employ assumptions and estimation about things which are ultimate unknowable to us as individuals. However, I feel that such valid criticisms only mean that we must remain open-minded and ready to change our moral calculus when new information is presented. However, I believe the main idea is solid. What do you think?

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7 responses to “Ethics and Philosophy – The Most Ethical Choice is Often The Selfish One

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