The objectivity of Ethics

Ethics, unlike morality and most values, is objective and independent from place and time. It doesn’t differ from person to person, it is not relative to culture, it doesn’t depend on age, gender, race, etc., and it doesn’t change with time. Good actions are universally good, and evil actions are universally evil. And this is because pain, suffering, destruction and well-being are not a matter of opinion but they are objective, real and universally recognised.

There is one aspect on which ethics is subjective. Ethical judgements are clearly not value-free, for we normally abhor evil and treasure goodness. Values in turn are subjective, meaning that ethics is also subjective: things are not inherently evil or good but we attribute them with those qualities. Good and evil are not independent forces from Nature controlling the fate of things (in a monist universe everything behaves according a neutral Nature). It is us who interpret actions as good or evil in relation to their effects to the world and people. So if things are not inherently good or evil, what is the objectivity of ethics then? The objectivity of ethics is that ethical values depends on some of the most fundamental values related to life, the struggle for existence and self-preservation. It is part of human nature to have a self-regarding behaviour, to reject pain, suffering and to treasure well-being. These are the elements that forms ethics and that makes ethical values subjective to human nature, but universal and objective among man.

Ethical judgements is a combination of emotions, cognition and human nature. The cognitive aspect of ethical judgements is related to intentional and self-regarding behaviour. The emotional aspect, is related to our empathy and our capacity to put ourselves in the place of others and interpret their emotions. And human nature is related to our most basic instincts of self-preservation. We judge some actions unethical, because we can interpret the pain and suffering that those actions bring to others. And we reject unethical actions, for it is part of a self-regarding human nature to reject pain, suffering and anything that threatens what we interpret as well-being. Inversely, we judge some actions ethical, because we can interpret the well-being that those actions bring to others. And we treasure ethical actions, for it is part of a self-regarding human nature to treasure well-being and to accept anything that contributes to it.

Notice that good and evil makes sense as the effects of actions from self-regarding agents (see human nature). Because of this, there is no altruism in good actions. And because of this, we wouldn’t call for example, the birth of a supernova evil, even if it is one of the most destructive events in the cosmos. Instead, we call evil the destructive behaviour of self-regarding individuals.

Notice also that ethical judgements only make sense on human behaviour. All animals have self-regarding behaviour, yet it is only on humans that we would judge the ethics of its behaviour. For example, we wouldn’t call the killing of a lion evil, but we would call evil a murder or unethical sport hunting. And this is because of two things: first, humans have more autonomy and responsibility for their actions than animals (see free-will); and second, because the extent of constructive and destructive behaviour is far greater on humans than on other animals. For example, another, more physical and general, way of looking at good and evil is in terms of the ratio between the constructive and destructive effects of actions; where constructive actions contributes to lower entropy in the world, while destructive actions contribute to higher entropy in the world. In these terms, the killing of a lion is destructive but it is sustainable and it is necessary for its self-preservation (the action is more constructive than destructive). The killing of a sport hunter on the other hand, is destructive and the only constructive effect is a transient psychological reward on the hunter (the action more destructive than constructive). And the less sustainable the hunting is, the more destructive and the more unethical.

Ethics and Human Development


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