April 12, 1997; Trying to address the question of "Why be ethical?" Why
care about other people, why work to make the world a better place? A
collection of reasons.
"What IS ethical?" and "Why BE ethical?" are two DIFFERENT questions,
but the answers are related. Different answers to the first make the
second a different question. If a theory of ethics does not answer the
second, its answer to the first is less believable.
In this essay, I will give a condensed and summary answer to the first,
then try to answer the second. My answer to the first is my own
assembled theory, combining the social-contract approach with the
Aristotelean; I make no claims of originality, uniqueness or finality
There is a built-in goal of biological life, genetic reproductive
success, also called "inclusive fitness" by biologists. For nonhuman
life, this goal could be described as "promote the health of your
family", where "health" is defined as "survival ability" and "family"
is "all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your
genes". Human beings are a special case in at least two ways. First,
our self-awareness and free will give us the ability to choose our
goals; inclusive fitness is only the "default option", toward which our
nature will incline us unless we consciously choose to pursue something
else. Second, humans are more than carriers of genes; we have original
thoughts, we create, receive, modify, and transmit culture. Therefore,
for human beings, "inclusive fitness" would as legitimately include our
cultural kin as our genetic kin. A goal that many people adopt,
unconsciously, (and the goal I advocate adopting consciously), is
"promote the health of your circle". The boundaries of your circle are
your choice, but it would be entirely natural to include yourself, your
genetic kin and descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (Near
kin commonly receive more concern than distant kin.)
Ethics is a tool for living in groups. Humans are social animals, we
have been living in groups for longer than we have been human. We have
evolved instincts and attitudes that facilitate our individual genetic
reproductive success, and more broadly the health of our circle, in a
Answering "What is ethical?": at a minimum, ethics is about maintaining
peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, the other
members of your social group. If you want to maintain peaceful
relations, don't kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare
wrote: "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us
Beyond this minimum, a person may be judged (by their neighbors) as a
"better" or "worse" neighbor, more or less desirable AS a neighbor.
[John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, P. 437: "A good person has the
features of moral character that it is rational for members of a well-
ordered society to want in their associates."]
If you adopt "promoting the health of your circle" as your goal, you
then have an objective standard by which to judge what kind of society
is a better one to live in, and what kind of people make better
So: Why go beyond the minimum ethics necessary for individual survival?
Why be a "good neighbor"? Why care about other people, and work to make
the world a better place?
Kinship is one reason. Natural selection has favored organisms that act
to promote the health of their kin, because kin share genes; genes that
promote caring among kin would reproduce more successfully. Kinship has
no sharp boundaries. When resources are very tight, when starvation and
freezing and violence are common, bonds of kinship are known to break
down. When times are more prosperous and secure, kin-feeling spreads
wider; the circle of concern widens, and more distant relations get
help when in trouble. Other humans share 99.6% of your genes, just by
being human; chimps share 98.4%, oak trees and bacteria share at least
Reciprocity is another reason. If you value anything in this life, in
this world, you had better value other humans, for there is no one else
who can help you. They are the most powerful beings around; for your
self-interest, you should look for friends and allies among them, and
avoid making enemies unnecessarily. When you act ethically, you are
making a bid for future cooperation.
Setting an example is a third reason. If "being ethical" includes
"being a desirable neighbor", then it is clearly in your self-interest
for OTHER people to be ethical. Setting an example, cultivating in
yourself the kind of character you desire in others, is an effective
strategy. It has been an effective strategy for so long that it has
sunk into our instinctive attitudes, to at least some degree. All who
see your behavior (not just those directly affected) will judge your
character accordingly. Including yourself. Nobody likes a phony, even
(or especially) when it is yourself.
Combining the first and third reasons: to set an example for your
children. Whatever the boundaries of your concern for your kinfolk in
the present generation, your kinship will likely spread out in the
future, you will become related to more people spread more widely. For
the health of your kin, you would not wish them to fight each other, or
treat each other unjustly, or fail to help each other in times of need.
If you draw your circle of concern more widely in the present, and
persuade your children to do so in the future, future benefits may
outweigh present costs.
Finally, to preserve the meaning of your life. This reason will take
some explaining. Humans are storytelling animals. For most people, "the
meaning of life" is what larger story they think their life fits into.
(More precisely, Meaning is the story they choose to join.)
They get great satisfaction from having a larger meaning for their
lives. A philosopher named Braithwaite described religion as "morals
helped out by mythology." People want a "good" story to include heroes
with goals, ideals, aspirations; to identify obstacles and challenges
against which the heroes must struggle; to offer a real hope of
victory. To provide meaning for their lives, people must regard the
story as true, or potentially true, in its essentials. You must have
good reason to hope that, if you live by the morals taught, the goals,
ideals, aspirations will be achieved in reality.
What stories are true, or could be true, to the best of current
knowledge? How would these stories "help out" morals?
For true stories, first, there is natural history, the story of
the evolution of the universe from the beginning, the development of
life on Earth, and the evolution of the human species. This would help
people understand their origins and genetic kinship. Then there is
human history, the story of civilization, with its cultural changes,
wars, rises and declines, triumphs and collapses. This would help
people understand cultural kinship. These stories are grand and
dramatic, and everyone's life can fit into them, and in fact does.
Thirdly there is "hard" science fiction, the kind that speculates on
future possibilities, keeping strictly within the bounds of current
science. These are where goals, ideals, and aspirations can be
Given that we have our choice, what goal shall we choose? As
individuals, we can choose "life-goals" and "legacy-goals". Life-goals
are whatever would be a satisfying life for you. This will vary
according to talent and temperament. Legacy-goals are the net effect
you want your life to have on the world. They are the last goals at
which you have any chance to succeed. Considering that accident, crime,
disease, etc. leave all of us uncertain as to our time of death, if you
want your personal story to end in victory, you will choose your
actions at all times in your life to be compatible with your desired
legacy. In this way, your legacy-goal may set limits on what you would
be willing to do to achieve your life-goals.
The ultimate source of fear and despair is death. Death is the ultimate
failure, the ultimate loss. If you want your personal story to end in
victory, what could be your response to this prospect? The antithesis
of death is health, defined as the ability to survive. Though as
individuals we shall inevitably die sooner or later, we can survive
through our genes (families) and through our communicated thoughts
To the extent that you identify with your body, you will survive death
through your family of the body, i.e. those that share your genes. To
the extent that you identify with your mind, you will survive death
through your family of the mind, i.e. all those with whom you share
culture, with whom you could share your thoughts.
Joining the true story of biological evolution, we can seek to
contribute to the health of our families. Joining the true story
of cultural evolution, we can seek to contribute to the health of our
The effects of cultural evolution on moral boundaries: the human
species' development of comparatively high intelligence, the
development of language, the development of writing, of new tools and
methods, and in recent times of the scientific method of understanding
the world, has led to a great increase in the potential value of
reciprocity. "Reciprocity" here refers to the whole network of trading
relationships which are peaceful, cooperative, and mutually beneficial.
By discovering new ways of producing desired things, other than hunting
and gathering, we discovered new forms of valuable cooperation.
It is a classic principle of economics, articulated by Adam Smith, that
"the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market." In
other words, for producing desired things by cooperative action, there
are advantages to having larger groups rather than smaller. There are
"economies of scale" that can be obtained only by larger groups.
Larger groups can support having a greater variety of different
products available, higher levels of specialized skill, and new types
of production that are not possible at all on smaller scales. Other
things equal, a larger group also has the advantage in intergroup
Cultural evolution has come to wholly overshadow biological
evolution. With the continuing development of culture, the power of the
human race has multiplied and multiplied again. Peace has gotten a
whole lot better, and war has gotten a whole lot worse. It has become
vastly more advantageous to avoid conflict and maintain peaceful
cooperation, in ever-larger and more inclusive groups.
So- the fact that humans are not only social but also intelligent, not
only carriers of genes but also carriers of culture, tends to make it
advantageous to push out the boundaries of moral concern, beyond the
reach supported by instinct. I think the natural limit of this process
is to include all carriers of culture, all potential cooperators, all
persons, in one society.