Sunday, 25 March 2012

Which ethical system leads to happiness?

From all branches of philosophy, ethics is the most practical. Values connect abstractions to decisions and morality provides guidelines to surmount difficult situations. Ethical systems are worthless if they are not aligned with reality and validated by facts.

History has produced hundreds of different ethical teachings that work well in specific circumstances but fail catastrophically in other contexts. Fortunately, we can see if those philosophies pass the tests of veracity and practicality without having to examine them one by one. For the purpose of analysis, ethical systems can be grouped in three main types: the partial, the logical, and the teleological.

[1] Partial ethics consist of one or several precepts that are not comprehensive enough to constitute a system of thought. The vast majority of ethical convictions held by people can be classified as partial ethics.

Let me underline that moral principles enunciated in this manner are not necessarily false. Sometimes, flawless albeit incomplete guidelines are predicated; on other occasions, utter nonsense is put forward as ethical precept.

As examples of two well-meaning commandments, take for instance "protect the planet" and "help other people." Individuals who advocate such ethics usually possess good intentions, but their formulations are so fragmentary that cannot be implemented consistently.

If you want to protect the planet, you have first to define "planet." Does it involve only mountains or also animals and trees? If the concept encompasses animals, should it not include human beings as well? If plants and micro-organisms are both part of the planet, should you protect them from each other? Interesting questions, for which partial ethics cannot provide unassailable answers.

If your only ethical principle is to help other people, how do you determine which individuals you should assist with priority? If person A is expected to help person B, is person B required to help person A? What happens if B has a different opinion? Who will settle disagreements on the meaning and scope of the word "help"?

Partial ethics are unsatisfactory because they do not work in all circumstances. Principles such as those mentioned above are correct if applied in a certain context, but cannot be stretched to a full-blown system of morality. Life is too complex to navigate if you know only one thing. Man requires a thinking methodology, not just a list of unconnected precepts.

[2] Logical systems of ethics represent a major step forward in human thought. Their purpose is to create a morality that answers all questions, a method that can be applied to all events without incurring contradictions. In History, partial ethics often evolve to logical moral systems after it becomes obvious that man cannot make rational decisions on the basis of isolated precepts.

In contrast to partial ethics, logical moral systems are consistent. Their principles and guidelines are linked to each other. Their conclusions aim at universality in space and permanence in time. A well-rounded moral system should be able to guide individuals in any situation that they may encounter in their private or professional lives.

The "categorical imperative" originated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is the best known system of logical ethics. According to Kant, true principles of morality must be universal, non-contradictory, and recognizable by reason. Decisions and actions are considered virtuous if they can be elevated to universal rules for all men.

"Do not steal" and "do not murder" are just two specific applications of the categorical imperative. Kantian ethics do not address simply a few situations, but all alternatives of human action. Logical ethical systems do not just provide recommendations for isolated cases, but a complete thinking methodology.

Nonetheless, these morality systems suffer from an inherent weakness. They are superior to partial ethics because they are non-contradictory, but internal consistency does not guarantee usefulness. Kantian morality is an intellectual clockwork foreign to the richness of human experience; it is a cold machinery that functions without feeling, ambition, passion, or hesitation.

Categorical imperatives forbid man to attack his neighbour but they won't tell him what he needs to do to be happy. Logical systems of ethics deal with the psychological aspects of human action only to a minor extent. Kantian morality won't provide you guidelines on how to define personal goals, allocate resources, and deal effectively with adversity.

[3] Teleological systems of ethics are the best that philosophy has produced. On the one hand, they go beyond the isolated commandments of partial morality; on the other hand, they aim at providing a comprehensive and consistent methodology, just like logical ethics. In addition, teleological systems render morality alive by linking it to an overriding goal, namely, happiness.

The word "teleological" comes from the Greek term "telos" which means purpose or goal. Advanced systems of ethics go far beyond "do not steal" and "do not murder." They view the human condition as a complex combination of factors that need to be judged according to general values and prioritized according to individual objectives.

A teleological morality based on reason provides a frame of thought that encompasses all of man's decisions and actions. This system of ethics aims not only at keeping you out of trouble, but also at helping you make the best of your life. The list of teleological virtues includes not only honesty and justice, but also independence, ambition, and persistence.

If you want to make optimal choices, you should adopt a teleological system of ethics based on reason. Other approaches to morality are workable in certain conditions, but fail to pass the tests of universality, permanence, consistency, and comprehensiveness.


[Image by zesbienbeautouza under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]