Recently my soon to be wife and I were on vacation in America. There I had the opportunity to talk to a real textbook republican: an old farmer from Texas who thinks that the bible is the literal truth. This was an extremely interesting conversation, because I have never had the chance to talk to someone like that before. We talked about what ethics is and how one can know what is good and what is evil, as well as many other things. It was extremely interesting.
He said that the answers are simple, that I need not overthink it. “It’s not complicated. Nothing in life is complicated. It might be really hard to do the right thing, but it’s not hard to know what the right thing would be.” So I asked him what he thought about one of my main ethical conundrums, that circumcision is a violation of the right to bodily integrity, but that Western countries simultaneously claim to uphold the right to bodily integrity and allow circumcision of male infants without medical necessity. He said, that that was a personal matter and not a matter of ethics, because it does not affect our interaction right now, nor does it affect the stability of society at large. Now I do not agree with either of these statements, but I found that definition of ethics very intriguing. Ethics can be defined as a set of rules that regulate the interaction between individuals in such a way that society remains stable.
"Ethics can be defined as a set of rules that regulate the interaction between individuals in such a way that society remains stable."
The reason why we live together in groups is because we each benefit so much from cooperating with others. Each person benefits more from getting help at a critical moment than it costs him to help another person at an uncritical moment. And ten men together can achieve things that one man alone could never achieve. Cooperation is what society is all about. And cooperation can only happen on the basis of trust and security. If everyone constantly has to fear that anyone around them might attack or betray them, then mutually beneficial cooperation is not possible. Since cooperation is such a great benefit to everyone, and since society is the way people organize in order to cooperate successfully, it is a reasonable proposition that ethics at least has to include rules of behavior that guard the stability of society.
If we accept that definition, then it is indeed quite straightforward to understand what is good and what is evil. One must only ask oneself: If everybody behaved in that way over a long period of time, would society become more stable or less stable? This section will present the most important rules that I found following that definition of ethics.
Don’t aggress against others
Don’t rape, steal, murder, hurt, threaten, destroy other people’s property, etc. The more violence there is in society, the less stable that society is. This is part of our definition of unstable. If you constantly have to fear that someone might attack you, then you live in an unstable environment. This not only hurts people directly, but also indirectly, because it massively decreases productivity. People won’t cooperate as much with each other, and they will invest more time and resources into defending themselves, and therefore invest less into producing things of value.
Society only remains stable if evil does not pay off. And it is up to each member of society to help make it so. However, it is a very dangerous thing to go around interfering in other people’s conflicts, because you don’t know enough about the history of the conflict or about each person’s motives. You could very easily end up doing more harm than good. Therefore, each person should start with defending themselves. This does not only apply in cases of violent attack, but foremost in one’s everyday life. Speak up when someone oppresses you, treats you unfairly, manipulates you, intimidates you, lies to you, lies about you, stole something from you, hurt you, etc. That way, if you are honest with yourself, you can be sure that you are defending yourself and not encroaching on another.
Use of language
If everyone can trust that no one lies, then they can save themselves the trouble of verifying the truth-value of what other people say. If every person had to distrust every statement by every other person, then the possibility for mutually beneficial interaction would be greatly reduced.
Share your experience
Language is extremely useful, because it allows each one of us to benefit from the experience of others. This might in fact be the most important aspect of cooperation at all: The gathering of relevant information. If there is a predator roaming the forest south of the village, it is a huge advantage if one person can tell the entire village, instead of everyone having to find it out by themselves.
So the good use of language is to share the condensed essence of one’s own experience of the world with others such that they can profit from it. This actually goes even further than merely sharing knowledge. We know that people all experience the world differently. That means the way you personally see the world and the conclusions you derive from it are unique. So not only do you know things that someone else maybe does not know, you know things about the world that no one but you can ever find out. So by honestly sharing your experience of the world with another person, you can make that person a unique gift that they could not have gotten in any other way.
Similar to the rule about not lying, if everyone can trust that everyone will do what they said they will, then they can save themselves the effort of preparing for the case that someone might betray them. Under such circumstances, people are more likely to trust an unknown person and that opens up many possibilities for mutually beneficial cooperation.
Trust others (unless you have a reason not to)
It takes courage to trust others, because you open yourself up and the person you trusted can then hurt or exploit you. But if no one is ever willing to take the risk of opening himself up, then no new trustful relationship can emerge. Therefore, it is noble and courageous to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt and trust him with something so that a mutually beneficial cooperation can ensue. This should in no way be confused with being naïve and trusting people blindly and unwarrantedly. Be aware of the danger of opening yourself up, be prepared to defend yourself, and then still open yourself up to allow the possibility of a mutually beneficial interaction.
Don’t have more than one intimate partner
If you are straight, this rule definitely applies to you. All throughout the animal kingdom it is the norm that the alpha male gets almost all the females. This simultaneously means that most males get no females at all. This leads to constant fighting amongst the males for access to the females. This setup destabilizes society, because all the men who can’t find a wife have an incentive to gang up and remove the men at the top of society to take their wives. Maybe this rule could be weakened to: Don’t have more than one intimate partner at the time, but many complicated questions arise from that idea, which we will have to address in more detail another time.
I don’t think that this rule necessarily applies for gay / lesbian couples, because they can’t have children together.
Have a partner for life
A stable lifelong relationship is in my opinion one of the biggest sources of stability and security in life. Ideally, your partner is your closest ally and best friend and you can rely on him 100% to be there whenever you need him. He will be there to share your joy in the good times and he will be there to help you get through the bad times. He will even stick to you through conflict and anger, when he would much rather just walk away because you annoy him so much.
Also monogamy is in my opinion the best way to enjoy one’s sexuality. It simultaneously makes one’s own and the life of one’s partner happier, and it does not harm anyone else. As mentioned before, having a series of monogamous relationships could also be a valid solution, the pros and cons of which we can discuss another time. But I believe that monogamy is better. You certainly cannot build up the same level of trust and security in a relationship that could end any time. You probably also don’t learn to work through interpersonal difficulties as well, if the option of leaving the other is always available.
Because a life partnership adds so much stability to the life of each partner, each person should aim towards having a life partner and should work as hard as they can to make their relationship good as possible.
Don’t be greedy
Society can only function if everyone who makes a real effort to be good can also earn a life worth living. Therefore, be satisfied at some point when you have enough and don’t just keep wanting more and more and more. That does not mean that you must lead an ascetic life. You are a human being too, and you should treat yourself at least as kindly as you would any other person. But don’t take so much for yourself that too little remains for everyone else. If everyone tried that, then a stable society would not be possible.
Share and help others
The opposite of greedily wanting everything for yourself is to generously share and help others. This does not mean: Feed everyone who is too lazy to work for themselves. That would be rewarding people for doing evil. But helping someone who himself also tries to help others in a critical situation is a good thing. If everyone did that, then everyone would be much safer against unexpected stress situations. Also if you have more than enough, it is a good thing to give to others such that they too can have a decent life.
Long term stability
Don’t destroy the environment
If a person destroys the future basis of living, then the stability of society will decrease in the future. Fewer people will be able to live on the same amount of land, and the question of who gets to live and who doesn’t will most likely lead to war and destabilize society tremendously.
Have or adopt children
In order for society to continue, people need to have children and to raise them properly. On average, each couple should have or adopt around two children and raise them to adulthood. Raising your children properly means to raise them to be strong and independent individuals who will themselves do good and add to the stability of society.
Don’t consume more than you produce
If the people of a society on average consume more than they produce, then this society will become poorer and poorer, until even food becomes scarce. That at the latest is the point where society breaks apart. When food goes out people start to fight their neighbor for food and the stability of society is gone.
Produce more than you consume
If a society produces more than they consume, then their wealth increases. This allows them to invest into various useful projects like medicine, building dams, secure water and food supply… All of that will increase a society’s security and average quality of life, thus making it more stable.
Don’t reward people for doing evil
The more people are rewarded for doing evil, the more people will start doing evil. That means if you are perfectly happy to profit from an evil action that another person did, then you also are part of the problem.
Reward people for doing good
The more people are rewarded for doing good, the more people will do good in the future. It often takes personal sacrifice to do something good. If you take part of that burden onto yourself by supporting the person that made the sacrifice, then you too contribute to making things better.
Give your best
Give your best
No matter what your talents are, you should give your best to make things better. Everything that you do or don’t do adds or takes away from the total stability and wealth of society.
Don’t drain yourself
Give your best but don’t drain yourself. Allow yourself enough pleasure and regeneration, such that you can keep a positive attitude towards life and that you can keep being productive. Better allow yourself some rest regularly than to burn out and then become a burden to others. Also it is better to allow yourself some pleasure than to become bitter and resentful about life and start to (consciously or unconsciously) vent your anger on others. You are a human being too and you should treat yourself at least as well as you feel you should treat anyone else.
The following table summarizes my thoughts on what is good and evil, according to the definition we examined in this article.
Good is that which increases the stability of society, evil is that which decreases it. I find this definition of ethics very intriguing. It is certainly a very solid piece of reasoning and also something that I have integrated into my own thinking. It is probably not the end of all wisdom, but I am quite sure that it is at least a necessary part of the correct definition of good and evil.