PART ONE: RELIGIOUS ETHICAL SYSTEMS ARE NOT THE BEST
An ethical system is a group of related beliefs about how to determine what actions are good or evil. Good actions are actions that should be done and encouraged, and evil actions are actions that should not be done and should be discouraged. There are two major types of ethical systems: religious and secular. A religious ethical system is based on a religion, and a religion is a system of beliefs based on faith. Faith is one’s ability to believe something although it is not proven to be true. Supposedly, whatever a religion says is good is good, and whatever a religion says is evil is evil. Why? In most cases, because something supernatural such as The Divine founded that religion and speaks through it.
Here, The Divine is defined as the person or persons who purposefully created the universe. Most Christians believe that The Divine is three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These persons are coequal and co-eternal, and share the same essence. Most Jews and Muslims believe that The Divine is one person. However, the universe could have been created by a group of persons who do not share the same essence. The following is a working definition of a person: A person is one individual thing that is alive and that is at least as intelligent as an average human.
In most cases from this point on, The Divine will be described as if The Divine is one person without gender. The purpose of this policy is to keep the writing herein pleasant to read and easily understood. It is not an endorsement of monotheism or The Divine lacking a gender. Maybe The Divine is many persons, and maybe The Divine is female or male. I have my suspicions, but I do not know for sure; and neither do you.
In contrast, a secular ethical system is not based on a religion. Instead, it is supposedly based completely on reason. Reason is one’s ability to perceive reality as honestly and completely as one can, and then make logical conclusions based on what one perceives. Believing in leprechauns requires faith, and believing in the moons around Jupiter requires reason. The reason is that no one has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that leprechauns exist and, using visual observation, many people have proven beyond reasonable doubt that the moons around Jupiter exist. I have never seen a leprechaun directly with my own eyes, but I have seen the moons around Jupiter with my own eyes using a telescope. Furthermore, to use Carl Sagan’s teaching, the claim that leprechauns exist is an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence while the claim that Jupiter has moons is, thanks to the telescope and scientists, no longer an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence. It is an ordinary claim backed by much ordinary evidence.
With all this in mind, we should conclude that the best ethical system will probably not be a religious ethical system, although one might be able to learn some useful teachings from various religious ethical systems. Instead, the best ethical system will probably be a secular ethical system.
As if the aforementioned advantage of reason over faith were not enough by itself to automatically favor secular ethical systems over religious ethical systems in general, there are at least three more compelling reasons.
Reason one: either good and evil exist regardless of the The Divine, or else the The Divine invents good and evil based on its own preference. In the former case, good and evil have nothing to do with the The Divine, and humans should be able to understand good and evil (at least to a large extent) without supernatural help. In fact, if the The Divine did not invent good and evil, it might be more evil than good. Thus, it might be a very untrustworthy teacher of what is good and what is evil.
In the latter case, good and evil are just arbitrarily picked. If the The Divine decides that murder is good, it is good. If the The Divine decides that murder is evil, it is evil. An invented ethical system is not an ethical system based on objective reality; it is merely based on the subjective preference of one of more persons. Even if that person or those persons are all-powerful, very knowledgeable, and the creator or creators of the universe, that does not necessarily make its or their ethical system based on any reality other than its or their preference.
Reason two: there is disagreement between different religions about what is good and what is evil. Therefore, at least one of them has a flawed ethical system, and perhaps all of them do. In fact, perhaps all of them have very flawed ethical systems. To be fair, at least in many cases, secular ethical systems often disagree with each other about what is good and evil. That is why there are many of them. However, secular ethical systems do not claim to be established by a supernatural revelation and are thus open to being proved or disproved using reason. The opposite is true of religious ethical systems.
For example, a Christian might always believe that drinking alcohol in moderation in this life is good because, supposedly, The Divine taught humanity this truth through Christianity. In contrast, a Muslim might always believe that drinking any amount alcohol in this life is evil because, supposedly, The Divine taught humanity this truth through Islam. If their faith in their respective religions is strong enough, no amount of evidence or logic will dissuade each of his or her belief.
However, secular ethicists should (and usually do) allow their opinions to change based on evidence and logic. If the evidence and logic which led them to embrace Secular Ethical System A are proven insufficient and/or flawed, and the evidence and logic which support Secular Ethical System B seem to be both sufficient and flawless, they will abandon the former for the latter with little or no struggle. In the case of alcohol consumption, secular ethicists will not ask The Divine or some book that was supposedly written by The Divine for the answer. Instead, they will ask themselves questions such as these: What is good, and what is evil? How can I tell what is good and what is evil? Based on my answers to these questions, should people drink alcohol? If yes, then when, why, and how much should people drink?
Reason three: if The Divine exists, it remains hidden and silent, at least to most people. Therefore, most people are wise not to believe those who claim to speak for the The Divine.
Here is a truth so important that it deserves to be repeated again and again, even though it should be obvious to every human over the age of ten: People often lie, and people often lie in order to promote their particular religion. One should not trust a human who claims to be The Divine or a spokesperson for The Divine without an extraordinary amount of evidence. What might such extraordinary evidence be? I might require an astonishing miracle such as a giant hand scooping us (the one talking to me and me) both up and taking us for a remarkable tour of the entire universe; and even if that happened, I would still be a little skeptical because I know that I can be tricked and that some tricks can be very impressive and sophisticated. Perhaps I was drugged and/or electric wires were attached to my brain so that I only believed that I was given a remarkable tour of the universe by this incarnate deity or prophet. In general, skepticism is a virtue because it saves us from accepting lies as true.
PART TWO: SECULAR ETHICAL SYSTEMS AND HOW TO JUDGE WHICH ONE IS THE BEST ETHICAL SYSTEM
With these truths in mind, we should now concentrate on secular ethical systems in order to determine which ethical system is the best. The following are the two main categories of secular ethical systems with popular examples of each.
Consequentialist ethical systems: the consequences of one’s actions are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the goodness or evil of one’s actions. In other words, obeying good rules is less important than having a good result.
1. State Consequentialism: whatever benefits one’s nation is good, and whatever does not is evil.
2. Utilitarianism: simply speaking, whatever makes the most creatures, especially humans, the happiest is good, and whatever does not is evil.[i]
3. Ethical Egoism: whatever is best for oneself is good, and whatever is not is evil.
4. Ethical Altruism: whatever is best for everyone but oneself is good, and whatever is not is evil.
Deontological ethical systems: the action itself, not the consequences of the action, is the ultimate basis for any judgment about the goodness or evil of that action. In other words, obeying good rules is more important than having a good result.
1. Kantian Ethics: One should always do one’s duty, regardless of the consequence of one’s action. One’s duty is to follow the best moral rules, and the best moral rules are the rules that one would want all humans to obey at all times and in all places. For example, because I would not want everyone to lie, steal, and murder; I should not lie, steal, and murder. Part of my duty is to obey the following rules: Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not murder.
In other words, whatever rule would be best for everyone to follow in all cases is good, and whatever action violates that rule is evil. Good moral rules apply to all people at all times without exception.
2. Natural Ethics: whatever Nature “tells” us to do is good, and whatever action violates Nature’s “command” is evil.
Nature is the phenomena of the physical universe collectively, including plants, animals, and landscapes, as opposed to humans or human creations. I just invented the phrase Natural Ethics for the purpose of this essay. However, many people believe in Natural Ethics, at least to an extent, even if they do not call it that.
To proceed further, it will be helpful to affirm the following five truths.
Truth Number One: Simply speaking, all sentient creatures want to maximize their happiness. Therefore, they want to maximize their pleasure and minimize their suffering.[ii] Maximizing one’s pleasure and minimizing one’s suffering maximizes one’s happiness. (A sentient creature is one thing that is alive and can feel pleasure and/or pain. Suffering is undesirable pain, and pain is desirable if it helps a creature more than it hurts a creature.)
Truth Number Two: We should always obey The Perfect Golden Rule.
Perhaps the most famous version of The Golden Rule is “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” What that means is do to others what you want them to do to you, and do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you. The Golden Rule is an excellent moral rule, but it can be improved into The Perfect Golden Rule: “Imagine or realize that you are very sane, very intelligent, very knowledgeable, and very kind. As you do this, treat other creatures the way that you want to be treated.”
Why is The Perfect Golden Rule better than The Golden Rule? The word “creatures” is added because “others” by itself is too vague and we should generally try to do what is best for all creatures. The words “very sane, very intelligent, very knowledgeable, and very kind” were added to promote good results. If someone is very sane, very intelligent, very knowledgeable, and very kind, she or he generally knows and wants what is best for him or herself and other creatures. Therefore, it is almost certainly good if she or he treats others the way he or she wants to be treated. However, if someone is very insane, very unintelligent, very ignorant, and/or very cruel, she or he might not know and/or want to do what is best for him or herself and other creatures. Such a person is likely to do evil when obeying The Golden Rule. For example, masochists enjoy feeling pain, and I do not. So I do not want masochists to hurt me because they are treating me the way that they want to be treated.
It should be noted that a defender of The Golden Rule is likely to say that a creature’s desires should be considered when one follows The Golden Rule or The Perfect Golden Rule, because we want our desires to be considered when others choose, or choose not to, do things to us. Therefore, we should consider the desires of others when we choose, or choose not to, do things to others. I agree with this defense.
Anyway, the reason we should always obey The Perfect Golden Rule is that doing so maximizes the happiness of all creatures collectively and individually. For example, on December 14, 2012, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot twenty children as well as six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, for unknown (but certainly evil) reasons. If Lanza had obeyed The Perfect Golden Rule, he would not have done this horrific action. Choosing to refrain from this massacre would have made humanity collectively happier because less humans would be horrified and grieving. It would also make individual humans happier because they, individually, would not be horrified and grieving, and they would not be killed if they were doomed to be one of the victims. (I am assuming that those victims would be happier living than dead.)
Truth Number Three: Each individual should be most concerned about what helps her or his species rather than what most helps other species. There is at least one reason this is true: This goal of life is given to each individual creature and each species by The Divine and/or evolution through natural selection.[iii] Simply speaking, each individual creature is programmed to do whatever he, she, or it needs to do to ensure the survival of her, his, or its genes. It will struggle mightily to stay alive in order to successfully reproduce, and then it will struggle mightily to ensure that its offspring has a chance to successfully reproduce. And since each individual creature of a species is thus programmed, it can accurately be stated that each species is programmed to do whatever it needs to do to ensure the survival of its genes. With these facts in mind, we should believe that humans should focus on the happiness of humans most, dogs should focus on the happiness of dogs most, snakes should focus on the happiness of snakes most, frogs should focus on the happiness of frogs most, fish should focus on the happiness of fish most, etcetera.
The fact that I have stated that The Divine might have programmed creatures is not an endorsement of any religious ethical system because I do not believe, and I am not advocating the position, that any religious ethical system was given to humanity by The Divine. I believe that The Divine always remains hidden from and silent to us mortal humans. That is why we mortal humans must invent our own secular ethical systems in order to create the best ethical system.
Likewise, the fact that I have stated that evolution through natural selection might have programmed creatures is not a strong endorsement of Natural Ethics, if it is an endorsement at all. The fact of the matter is that, in order to embrace one of the secular ethical systems as the best ethical system, some important truths have to be adequately articulated. These truths, although debatable, are the best truths that I can think of to help us accomplish this task. The Divine and/or Nature as expressed in evolution through natural selection made us who we are. Our happiness is most likely to be found working with it or them, at least to an extent.
If I am a sentient robot who was built by humans to fly and not to swim, I will probably be happier flying and not swimming. Creatures tend to like doing what they are good at, and creatures tend to be good at what they were designed to do. As far as I know, the most likely candidates for the person, persons, or thing that designed humans is The Divine and/or evolution through natural selection. Therefore, as much as reason permits, we should cooperate with the design that we were given. In general, we should favor humans over non-humans. History has generally proven that we were designed to do so, and doing so tends to make us happier.
By the way, here the word “designed” does not necessarily mean intentionally created. Evolution through natural selection is likely to have accidentally created all life on Earth as we know it. Suppose that three trees fall in a forest in such a way that they form a triangle without any help from any sentient creature; the design is a triangle although the design was not done on purpose. Gravity accidentally designed that triangle. Nonetheless, it is a triangle.[iv]
Truth Number Four: All humans should be treated as if they have equal worth. Why? There are at least four reasons.
The first reason is that it is literally true in the sense that all humans are of equal worth as humans. They are all equally human, and they are all one species. They are like $1 bills. One $1 bill is equal to one other $1 bill. (Yes, rare and collectable dollar bills can be worth more, but I am talking about regular, commonplace $1 bills.)
Of course, some humans are better at some things than others. General Patten would be better than Gwyneth Paltrow for leading armies, but Gwyneth Paltrow would be better for sex (at least for me) than General Patten. I admit that there are top humans and bottom humans in every category. For example, Shakespeare was an excellent writer, and some extremely mentally handicapped and illiterate person is a horrible writer. Many, if not most, modern humans are in between such greatness and un-greatness. Take me, for instance. I do not write as well as Shakespeare, but I write better than my hypothetical mentally handicapped and illiterate person. So, yes, I do concede that some humans are better at some things than others; and in that sense some humans are worth more than others. Give me General Patten to lead my armies, and give me Gwyneth Paltrow to lead my orgasms!
However, all humans are still of equal worth as humans, and now I get to the second reason that all humans should be considered of equal worth. It is much more practical. Yes, those who are most qualified for a job should get that job, but I am primarily talking about how the government and its laws should treat humans. Who should get the right to vote and why: the soldier, the actress, or the writer? Who is more valuable for society and why? Who should get the lesser jail sentence, and who should get the harsher?
I submit for your consideration that the soldier, the actress, and the writer can all contribute greatly to society and that it can be impossible for us mortal humans to precisely quantify which one has contributed the most. The same is true of every other human. The poet Charles Bukowski might have been a low-life drunk, but he might have benefited more humans than any CEO alive today.
My point is that, since it is too difficult to calculate the exact value of a particular human, it is more practical to just consider all humans to be of equal worth in terms of laws, rights, and responsibilities.
The third reason that all humans should be considered to be of equal worth is that it seems more fair—especially to those who would be treated as if they are of lower worth. Those who are treated as if they are of lower worth might actually be of higher worth than some of those favored by the government or a particular ethical system. Think of nations that have a few aristocrats and many peasants, or think of societies that had masters and slaves. Many peasants are kinder and smarter than many aristocrats, just like many slaves were kinder and smarter than many masters. The same is true of poor and rich humans. Many poor humans are kinder and smarter than many rich humans.
The fourth reason that all humans should be considered to be of equal worth is obviously related to the first and third reasons. Treating humans equally tends to stop rebellions and retributions before they start. Humans who are treated as lesser humans generally know that they are being mistreated, and it doesn’t seem fair to them. If too many humans are treated as lesser humans for too long, they will violently revolt, and perhaps rightly so. And long before that violent revolt happens, some of those angry and mistreated humans will find ways to strike back at their oppressors. Waiters can spit into the food of those they serve, and poor humans can steal and vandalize the property of the rich. There are probably countless ways that the oppressed can hurt their oppressors.
Truth Number Five: It is better to have a happy outcome than to just follow rules that usually promote happiness. In other words, it is better to have good results than to just follow “good”[v] rules. The following questions and answers explain why:
Q1: What does it mean to say that the ends justify the means?
A1: It means that a good outcome excuses any harm done to attain it. For example, if a politician is campaigning with illegal funds to be president, wins the election, and then does much good for her or his nation, that politician might easily say that the ends justify the means.
Q2: Isn’t it likely that someone might do many horrific actions, claiming that the ends justify the means?
A2: Yes, that is why it is important to remember another saying: “The means contain the ends.” For example, if one wants a kind society, one can best accomplish that through kind means. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, educating the ignorant, and healing the sick are much more likely to make a kind society than not doing these things or than doing blatantly cruel actions such as stealing food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care from the needy. The goal of every voluntary action should be to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of creatures, especially humans. Usually, that goal is best accomplished by following good rules, such as “Do not kill humans” and “Do not lie.” However, sometimes it is best accomplished by disobeying good rules or at least changing the good rules to better fit a situation.
Q3: How might one change good rules to better fit a situation?
A3: One might add qualifying statements. For example, one might change the rule “Do not kill humans” to “Do not kill humans unless they are purposefully trying to kill another human who does not deserve to be killed”; and one might change the rule “Do not lie” to “Do not lie unless you believe that telling the truth will cause much more unjust suffering than telling the lie.”
Q4: Why not just make the rules perfect in the first place and then live by them without ever questioning them further?
A4: There are at least two reasons. One, the rules would be too difficult to remember and apply. For example, changing “Do not kill humans” to “Do not kill humans unless they are purposefully trying to kill another human who does not deserve to be killed” is still incomplete/imperfect. A more complete/perfect rule would be “Do not kill humans unless they are purposefully trying to kill, rape, kidnap, mutilate, and/or disfigure another human who does not deserve such treatment; begging to be killed because they are suffering greatly and will suffer greatly until they die; in a permanent vegetative state and are unnecessarily using all the financial resources of their family to stay alive; convicted of premeditated murder, high treason, military desertion during war, or raping a child under the age of seven; accidentally killed during a just military action; unjustly holding someone captive and killing the captor is the only way to free that captive; or one must choose to let one human die so that more humans will live.” (Note that I have not even dealt with the very controversial topic of abortion. If I chose the Pro-Choice side and defined abortion as killing a human, this very long rule could get much longer.) The second reason is that the goal of all these changes would still be the same: Maximize the happiness of the greatest number of creatures, especially humans. Thus, it is better to live according to one simple rule, such as The Utilitarian Rule, than many rules which are very complex. The Utilitarian Rule is explained later in this essay.
Q5: Is there a simpler way to prove that the ends justify the means but that the means contain the ends?
A5: Yes. I would rather have someone try to hurt me and accidentally help me, than someone try to help me and accidentally hurt me. However, someone is much more likely to hurt me if he or she is trying to hurt me, and someone is much more likely to help me if she or he is trying to help me. All this is true for me, and this is probably true for everyone (or at least almost everyone).
With those five truths adequately articulated, we can now give a broad answer to the question, What is the best secular ethical system? The best secular ethical system (and, thus, the best ethical system) is the one that maximizes the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans. It is focused on happy outcomes rather than following rules that usually lead to happy outcomes. Why? The happiness of all sentient creatures should be considered important because we should treat others the way that we want to be treated. Yet, we humans should be most concerned about what helps humanity more than other species, and we should treat all humans as if they have equal worth. Finally, it is more important to do good than to try to do good, because it is better to promote happiness than to try to promote happiness.
PART THREE: THE BEST ETHICAL SYSTEM IS UTILITARIANISM
State Consequentialism is not the best ethical system because it does not maximize the happiness of the greatest number of creatures. Its focus is on what benefits a nation rather than what makes creatures happy. If a nation full of suffering slaves most benefits the nation, then State Consequentialism indicates that the nation should be full of suffering slaves. Perhaps Nazi Germany would have been such a nation if it had won World War II. In the Nazi German Empire, there might have been far more non-Germans than Germans; and the Germans might have contemptuously treated the non-Germans both as slaves and lesser humans. All the while, most of the Germans would willingly work to make the German Empire militarily and economically powerful, and long-lasting. And all the while, most of the Germans would have forced most of the non-Germans in the German Empire to unwillingly do the same.
Utilitarianism can be confusing and can seem to indicate that, in certain extreme cases, one should take a very morally questionable action. However, ethics is a complicated subject, so probably the best ethical system is at least a little complicated too. I actually have much to say about Utilitarianism because I believe that it is the best ethical system. The following questions and answers explain why:
Q1: Why is Utilitarianism the best ethical system?
A1: Utilitarianism is based on reason, not faith; it focuses only on the happiness of sentient creatures, especially humans; it only seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; it treats all humans equally; and it is focused on happy outcomes rather than following rules that usually lead to happy outcomes.
Q2: What is good?
A2: Good is treating sentient creatures the way that they should be treated.
Q3: What is evil?
A3: Evil is not treating sentient creatures the way that they should be treated.
Q4: Why is the focus of good and evil on sentient creatures? Why not The Divine, non-sentient creatures, or non-living things such as rocks?
A4: In many cases, we can make sentient creatures be happy or miserable. However, as far as we know, The Divine is too powerful for us to physically help or hurt, and The Divine should be so wise and mature that The Divine should not be very emotionally affected by anything we do. The Divine purposefully created the whole vast universe, and we humans are just an extremely tiny part of the universe. The Divine probably has much more important things to do than to worry about how one species on one planet thinks about it.[vi] As for non-sentient creatures and non-living things, they feel nothing. Therefore, we cannot make them be happy or miserable.
Q5: How should sentient creatures be treated?
A5: At least in most cases, we should obey the Utilitarian Rule: Always try to make every voluntary action you do achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans.
Q6: Why is it called the Utilitarian Rule?
A6: Simply speaking, Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that every voluntary human action should attempt to achieve the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans. I wrote “Simply speaking” because there are different types of Utilitarianism.
Q7: Why is happiness good?
A7: There are at least two reasons: 1) All humans very much want to be as happy as possible, now and always. In fact, it can be argued that happiness is the ONLY thing humans want. 2) The same is true of many other sentient creatures.
Q8: But what about humans who willingly sacrifice themselves for others, such as parents who willingly sacrifice themselves for their children or soldiers who willingly sacrifice themselves for their nation? Aren’t they giving up their happiness for the happiness of others?
A8: I am not saying that happiness is the only thing humans want. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. What I am saying is that even such humans might willingly sacrifice themselves for their own happiness. They probably feel happy sacrificing themselves because they are doing what they believe is good, they are not doing what they believe is evil, and they are helping those and/or the cause that they love.
Q9: What is happiness?
A9: Happiness is mentally feeling much more pleasure than suffering. It is the opposite of misery.
Q10: What is misery?
A10: Misery is mentally feeling much more suffering than pleasure.
Q11: What is pleasure?
A11: Pleasure is a type of feeling which every (or almost every) sentient creature wants to feel. It is like a color. You either understand it, or you don’t. Someone blind from conception cannot completely understand the color green because he or she cannot see it. Likewise, someone without the ability to have feelings cannot completely understand pleasure because she or he cannot feel it.
Q12: What is pain?
A12: Pain is an unpleasant feeling which can be either desirable or undesirable.
Q13: What is suffering?
A13: Suffering is undesirable pain, that is pain that is more harmful than helpful.
Q14: What is the purpose of pain?
A14: At least one purpose of pain is to make a creature change his, her, or its behavior to increase her, his, or its chances of successfully passing on his, her, or its genes to the next generation. For example, suppose that a human’s hand touches some fire. Touching the fire will make the human feel pain, and the pain will make the human withdraw her or his hand. In other words, it will make the human change what he or she is doing. Withdrawing a hand keeps the hand operational and less likely to get infected. An operational and uninfected hand greatly helps a human to survive, beget children, and successfully raise those children to adulthood.
Q15: What is the difference between suffering and pain?
A15: Pain is an unpleasant feeling which can be either desirable or undesirable. Suffering is an unpleasant feeling which is only undesirable. Pain can be either helpful or unhelpful. Suffering is always unhelpful because it is just pain that does not cause one to change her, his, or its behavior to increase his, her, or its chances of successfully passing on her, his, or its genes to the next generation. An example of suffering is the pain caused by arthritis. Simply speaking, the pain caused by arthritis does not cause one to change behavior for the better. It only makes one experience an unpleasant feeling.
Q16: What causes pleasure?
A16: Having reasonable desires and having those desires fulfilled causes pleasure. Reasonable desires are desires that are obtainable and worth the effort. Unreasonable desires are desires that are not obtainable or just not worth the effort. An example of a reasonable desire is the desire to not starve to death, and an example of an unreasonable desire is the desire to eat all the cheeseburgers on Earth in one day. Reasonable desires promote happiness because they can and should be fulfilled. Unreasonable desires promote misery because they cannot and/or should not be fulfilled.
Q17: What are some reasonable desires?
A17: Desiring adequate air, water, food, sleep, sex, excretion, physical and mental health, financial security, friends, family, lover, self-respect, respect from others, freedom, and to come close to being the best that one can be at many worthwhile activities.
Q18: What are some unreasonable desires?
A18: Desiring all the air, water, food, sexy lovers, leisure time, money, land, oil, diamonds, and popularity on Earth; desiring to enslave and/or unjustly hurt humans; and desiring to be better than all humans at everything.
Q19: What causes suffering?
A19: Not satisfying reasonable desires, desiring something that one cannot and/or should not have, and/or feeling unhelpful pain.
Q20: With all this in mind, how can we be as happy as possible now and always?
A20: We can do everything in our power to maximize our pleasure and minimize our suffering for as long as we consciously exist. We maximize our pleasure by having and fulfilling all our reasonable desires. We minimize our suffering by not having unreasonable desires and by not having unfulfilled reasonable desires.
Q21: Is the above answer too simplistic? In other words, isn’t there more to being happy than maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering for as long as one consciously exists?
A21: Maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t. I am not certain. What I am certain about is that the above answer is more true than false and that I want this essay to be understandable for the vast majority of humans. Therefore, I will try to keep the ideas in this essay simple and easily understandable, even if there are some exceptions to my assertions.
Q22: What are some possible exceptions to the Utilitarian Rule?
A22: Supposedly, sometimes blindly obeying the Utilitarian Rule would cause us to do evil. For example, it would cause us to 1) murder an innocent child if doing so would make more creatures happier overall, 2) work like slaves for the rest of our lives if doing so would make more creatures happier overall, and 3) let our mother burn to death in a fire if we could save two other humans we never met before instead, simply speaking. (I wrote “simply speaking” because I can imagine at least one exception: Our mother is very evil, and those two other humans are very good. If that is the case, we probably should let our mother die.) In at least most cases, murdering an innocent child, working like a slave for the rest of our lives, and letting our mother die in a fire to save just two strangers’ lives are evil acts. Furthermore, although it is good to not unnecessarily hurt or kill creatures, sometimes we have to choose to hurt or kill one creature in order to help another creature. For example, suppose that one had a beloved pet dog that was face to face with a rattlesnake, and one’s choice was basically to let one’s dog get bit or to kill the rattlesnake. One should probably kill the rattlesnake to help the dog.
Q23: Is it possible that the Utilitarian Rule is always correct?
A23: Yes. Although at one level there seem to be exceptions to the Utilitarian Rule, these exceptions have the same basic goal as the Utilitarian Rule. That goal is to promote human happiness and the happiness of the creatures whom humans impact. In general, we humans are much happier when we don’t murder an innocent child, work like slaves for the rest of our lives, and let our mothers burn to death. Thus, at the deepest level, it seems that the possible exceptions to the Utilitarian Rule ultimately and paradoxically promote the Utilitarian Rule, at least to an extent.
Ethical Egoism is not the best ethical system because it is very unlikely to maximize the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans. In fact, Ethical Egoism is very likely to do the opposite, that is maximize the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans. One reason this is true is that Ethical Egoists are like parasites. Parasites feed off other living creatures, and they need those creatures to be alive so that they can keep feeding off them. If a creature dies, the parasites in that creature will die too. And because the parasites hurt the creature more than help it, if there are too many parasites, they will kill the creature and, thus, accidentally kill themselves. Thus, Ethical Egoists tend to metaphorically kill the happiness of others first and their own happiness second.
Ethical Egoists feed off society, that is they generally take more help from society than they give. Ethical Egoists benefit most when society is healthy. For example, when society is rich, Ethical Egoists can more easily get and maintain wealth. When society is safe and free, Ethical Egoists can more easily be safe and free. If society is unhealthy, Ethical Egoists tend to suffer along with everyone else. They tend to be poorer, less safe, and less free than when society is healthy.
The smaller percentage of Ethical Egoists a society has, the healthier that society is because it has more people helping it be healthy than draining its health. The larger percentage of Ethical Egoists a society has, the less healthy that society is because it has more people taking help from it than giving help to it. In short, it has more metaphorical parasites.
To understand my point, imagine a society composed only of Ethical Egoists. Every member of that society is only seeking to help him or herself without unnecessarily helping others. Military personnel, police officers, and firefighters risk their lives much less. Teachers have much less sympathy and do much less work; in fact, many more teachers quit because teaching is very stressful. Politicians, business people, and entrepreneurs have even less morals than they do now. Everyone is stealing from each other, and everyone is very afraid to be stolen from. Everyone lies to each other. No one can be trusted.
Would you want to go to a doctor who is an Ethical Egoist? I wouldn’t; she or he might lie to me just to get more money from me. The same is true of all types of people: financial advisors, lawyers, bosses, employees, “friends,” relatives, etcetera. A society with too many Ethical Egoists cannot endure for long and is a horrible society to live in while it lasts.
Here, someone might argue that Ethical Egoism encourages people to follow certain rules of conduct that help everyone to be happy, because one is better off if everyone obeys these rules. Smart Ethical Egoists realize that members of a society have to give up some happiness sometimes to achieve the greatest amount of happiness overall. I respond that, at least in many cases, even smart Ethical Egoists will break good rules if they believe that the consequence for them personally will be more positive than negative. Thus, a doctor who is a smart Ethical Egoist will lie and say that the purpose of healthcare is primarily to help people be healthy; it is not to make healthcare professionals rich. However, he will lie to become richer if he believes that he personally will get away with that lie. Maybe he will require his patients to have unnecessary procedures, or prescribe them more expensive drugs to receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies.
I also want to add the following: Ethical Egoism is a selfish philosophy because an Ethical Egoist cares about the happiness of him or herself much more than the happiness of anyone else. By being an Ethical Egoist, one is constantly thinking in selfish terms: “What is best for me, regardless of how it impacts others?” I suspect that when one is constantly thinking in selfish terms, such thinking becomes a strong habit that is very difficult to break. Thus, even when an Ethical Egoist wants to always follow selfless rules of conduct (rules of conduct that help everyone be happy) because she or he will be better off if everyone obeys these rules, he or she might find it impossible to consistently do so because she or he actually follows a selfish ethical system. Like tends to beget like, and selfish thoughts tend to beget selfish actions.
Of course, there are other reasons not to be an Ethical Egoist, and I will just briefly mention them to avoid being unnecessarily boring. Many human laws reward people for doing good, The Divine is likely to reward relatively good people after death, relatively good people are generally more liked and loved than relatively evil people, doing good makes this universe a better place to live, and one can get more pleasure overall from doing good than from doing evil. Furthermore, most human laws punish people for doing evil, The Divine is likely to punish relatively evil people after death, relatively evil people are generally less liked and loved than relatively good people, doing evil makes this universe a worse place to live, and one can get more suffering overall from doing evil than from doing good.
Ethical Altruism is not the best ethical system because it lacks many the strengths of Utilitarianism. It is not based on reason because there is no compelling rational argument why one should do whatever is best for everyone but oneself. In other words, simply speaking, the happiness of every human is as important from an objective point of view as the happiness of every other human, because all humans are of equal worth. Ethical Altruism could focus only on the happiness of sentient creatures, especially humans—which is good. However, it neglects to focus on the happiness of oneself, which is evil. Lastly, it does not treat all humans equally because it treats oneself as less important than all other humans.
Utilitarianism is like the best compromise between Ethical Egoism and Ethical Altruism. Like Ethical Egoism but to a lesser degree, Utilitarianism stresses that oneself is important; and like Ethical Altruism but to a lesser degree, Utilitarianism stresses that other creatures besides oneself are important.
Kantian Ethics, although it gives some good ethical guidance, has at least three problems that make it less helpful than Utilitarianism.[vii]
- “The first difficulty is Kant’s claim that outcomes are irrelevant to doing the right thing. . . . It isn’t irrelevant that the choices you make could harm [others]. . . . [T]here are times when we can predict pretty accurately what will happen if we do act A versus act B!” In other words, unlike Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics is not focused on happy outcomes rather than following rules that usually lead to happy outcomes.
- The best moral rules are duties, and “duties are universal and apply without exception.” One problem with this assertion is that there might be more than one acceptable way to do a duty, and sometimes different ways can conflict with each other. “For example, we all have a duty to respect the dead. . . . Suppose in one culture respect for the dead requires burying and praying over them, while in another culture, people respect the dead by eating them.” Utilitarianism easily avoids this problem by indicating the following course of action: 1) Do what maximizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans. 2) If two or more actions both achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans; feel free to choose any of those actions. Thus, it is probably best to allow each of the aforementioned cultures to respect the dead in their own particular way.
- “We aren’t told what to do when rules come into conflict.” For example, “[w]e know that doctors have . . . the duty to save lives and the duty to prevent pain. . . . [I]f the doctor fulfills the duty to save lives, she will end up prolonging the life of her patient. But if she prolongs the patient’s life, she will fail in her duty to prevent the patient’s pain!” There is much less conflict in Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has only one rule, The Utilitarian Rule; and it is much easier for one rule to avoid conflicting itself than a group of many rules. Also, what was stated before still applies here. Utilitarianism urges us to do at least two things: 1) Do what maximizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans. 2) If two or more actions both achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans; feel free to choose any of those actions. If you are a doctor, help your patient to live longer if you believe doing so will maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans. However, if you believe that doing the opposite will maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans; do the opposite.
Natural Ethics is not the best ethical system because it often leads to less pleasure and more suffering. If Nature likes anything, Nature seems to like suffering, death, and selfishness. All sentient creatures on Earth suffer and die, and many are programmed by Nature to kill and eat other sentient creatures just to survive.
As for selfishness, it is often rewarded in Nature. For example, penguins steal rocks from each other to build nests, male lions murder the cubs of other male lions to cause the mother of the cubs to go into heat, and many kinds of cuckoo birds deceive other birds into raising their young. These examples teach that stealing, murder, and lying are natural activities that benefit the thieves, murderers, and liars. A society full of thieves, murderers, and liars will almost certainly be much less happy than a society full of the opposite kinds of people—people who (at least in most cases) do not steal, murder, and lie. If such good people do choose to steal, commit homicide[viii], or lie, they do so because reason tells them that such a normally evil action will maximize the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of creatures, especially humans.[ix]
The bottom line is that Utilitarianism is the best ethical system. All people should study it, embrace it, and promote it. If all humans voluntarily did these things, humanity would be as sane, good, and happy as possible for as long as humans exist. Also, the more sane, good, and happy humans are; the more likely they are to treat other creatures well. The more Utilitarianism, the more everyone wins!
“Homicide.” Wikipedia. 6 Jun. 2017. 9 Jun. 2017.
Ingram, David Bruce and Jennifer A. Parks. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Ethics. New York: Alpha Books, 2002.
[i] I wrote “Simply speaking” because there are different kinds of Utilitarianism.
[ii] I wrote “Simply speaking” because there might be some unusual creatures who, for some reason or reasons, do not want to maximize their happiness and/or minimize their suffering. To keep matters simple, I will respectfully ignore the possibility of such creatures at this time. If such creatures exist, they are probably insane or at least have very irrational beliefs.
[iii] There is a chance that The Divine never existed; or that it once existed, created the universe, and then died. For the sake of pleasant writing style and understandability, I write as if The Divine not only existed, but that it will always exist, and that it will always be very powerful, knowledgeable, and intelligent.
[iv] If you still do not believe that a member of each species should favor his, her, or its species over all other species, ask yourself these questions: If you (a human) had to choose to kill a randomly selected young human or a randomly selected young creature of any non-human sentient species, what would you choose and why? If you choose the human, the vast majority of humans would believe that you were very evil, although they might not be able to say a compelling reason why, such as each species should favor her, his, or its species because this goal of life is given to each individual creature and each species by The Divine and/or evolution through natural selection.
The average human would choose the human over the non-human and then give one or more of the following unconvincing reasons: 1) The Divine favors humans over other creatures, 2) humans are smarter, 3) humans ponder deep philosophical questions, 4) humans have a written history, 5) humans are so powerful that they can save or obliterate every species on the planet.
There is little evidence, if any, that Reason 1 is correct. Simply speaking, humans suffer and die just like all other sentient creatures on Earth, and the whole time The Divine stays hidden and silent. In fact, countless species have become extinct and humanity will probably join that long list someday. If The Divine does not favor a species enough to save it from extinction, The Divine does not favor a species much.
As for Reasons 2, 3, 4, and 5, an objective judge might easily conclude, “So what? Yes, humans might be smarter, more philosophical, better writers, and more powerful than any other species on Earth; but that is just a human arguing for human superiority based on what humans do well. It is like a tuna fish arguing that tuna fish are more valuable than humans because tuna fish can swim and breathe underwater better, or a sparrow arguing that sparrows are more valuable than humans because sparrows have feathers and can fly without help better.
“Besides, what if it gets proven that dolphins are smarter and more philosophical than humans, which might happen? Does that mean that humans should start favoring dolphins over humans in all cases?
“A written history is impressive, but many species write in a way by making marks on trees, which is a type of written history that states, ‘Beware! This is my territory!’ Does that mean that American black bears, which scratch trees to mark their territory, and humans should be valued equally?
“The ability to save or obliterate every species on a planet full of life is also impressive, but suppose there is a species of bacteria that can do the same. The vast majority of humans would not say that one of those bacteria should be valued equally with one human.”
Like it or not, there is no compelling objective reason that humans should be valued over all non-human creatures. However, there is one compelling subjective reason: One is a human, and The Divine and/or evolution through natural selection has given each species the goal of keeping its genes alive and increasing their number.
[v] The reason that I put the word “good” in parentheses is that I am using it imprecisely. An action is probably not good (i.e. the morally best choice) if it does not maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of creatures, especially humans.
[vi] There is a chance that The Divine never existed; or that it once existed, created the universe, and then died. For the sake of pleasant writing style and understandability, I write as if The Divine not only existed, but that it will always exist, and that it will always be very powerful, knowledgeable, and intelligent.
[vii] In the next three paragraphs (Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3), whatever is in quotation marks comes from pages 174 and/or 175 of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Ethics.
[viii] I changed the word “murder” to the phrase “commit homicide,” because, in English, murder almost always has the meaning of an evil act of killing. Usually if not always, either an action is more good than evil, or it is more evil than good. If it is more good than evil, it might (or might not) be best to consider it a good action; but if it is more evil than good, it is probably best to consider it an evil action. An evil action should not be considered a good action, even if it is done by good people with good intent. Thus, murder is always evil.
[ix] I have been thinking of examples when it is morally better (i.e. good) to steal, commit homicide, and lie than when it is morally worse (i.e. evil) to not do those actions. Much depends on how one defines those words. With that fact in mind, here are the definitions that I will use. Steal means to take another creature’s property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it. “Homicide refers to one human killing another. Homicides can be divided into many overlapping legal categories, including murder, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, killing in war, euthanasia, and capital punishment, depending on the circumstances of the death. These different types of homicides are often treated very differently in human societies; some are considered crimes, while others are permitted or even ordered by the legal system.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homicide). A lie is a false statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception.