Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

A Short Course in Ethics

How are we to live? Most people seem to agree that there are “right” things and “wrong” things and we should try to do the right ones, but they’re less clear on how to figure out what the right ones are.

Some say there are certain moral rules (don’t murder, don’t steal) that we must follow to be right. But how do you decide what those rules are? Many such rules have been proposed; how do we pick the good ones?

If you ask someone to justify a rule, they usually do it by listing its consequences: if we don’t steal, God will reward us; everyone will be happier if we stop killing. In the end, it seems like everything boils down to consequences: good acts are those which accomplish good things.

So how do we decide what good things are? Doesn’t everyone have their own idea of what’s good? Instead of trying to promote one particular person’s notion of what’s good, it seems like we should balance everyone’s good. In most cases, it’s impossible for us to know what’s actually good for a person, so this usually means taking their word for it and trying to give them what they want.

(Cases where people don’t seem to want what’s good for them are usually cases where people are confused about what they want. I may think I really want to eat this whole box of cookies but later I’ll realize I really wish I hadn’t.)

But everyone wants different things — how do we balance their desires? It seems like the only fair thing to do is to treat everyone equally. Of course, this doesn’t mean treating every want equally: if one person wants a yacht and another person wants a dry place to sleep tonight, the second want seems much stronger than the first; filling it will accomplish more overall good.

Here’s another way to look at this. Imagine that before we were born, we all sat up in the heavens and talked about how to design the world. None of us yet know which bodies we would be born into or which parents we’d have, so none of us can possibly be biased. Aren’t we all going to want to promote the greatest good overall? We’ll make sure the worst-off aren’t particularly worse-off in case we’re one of them, and we’ll make sure the rest aren’t especially handicapped in case we’re one of them.1 If we have to choose between a world with one more yacht for Larry Ellison and one with one more dry place to sleep for a woman in poverty, we’ll probably pick the dry place.

So we have our simple moral principle: when faced with a question, pick the answer that will accomplish the most overall good. Two friends both want to borrow my TV tonight, but one already has a TV and just wants it so he can watch two channels at once, while the other can’t afford even a single television. Our principle suggests the TV goes to the second.

But our principle doesn’t just apply to the questions we’re obviously faced with. Surely there are many other people who want a TV and have even less than my friend. By our logic, they would seem to deserve the TV even more, even though they didn’t happen to be asking me for it and thus forcing me to confront the question.

It seems like we need to think more carefully about the implicit question of each moment: what do I do now — with my time, my money, my possessions? And it seems like we need to apply the same moral rule.

The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want — the world’s poorest people.

Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest — not just spending one’s wealth and selling one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help. I have friends who, to save money, break into buildings on the MIT campus to steal food and drink and naps and showers. They use the money they save to promote the public good. It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizen, should be our moral exemplars.

Such a thorough-going conception of ethics seems incredibly difficult. Surely it requires severe changes in our life. The traditional notion of ethics is much easier — there are some bad things (stealing, lying, cheating) and we need to try our best not to do them. But, as in any field, it’s important to separate the truth from what’s convenient. People are often criticized for not doing what they think is right (hypocrisy), but not believing in what’s right because it’s hard to do is far worse!

I am convinced that the account here is largely correct, but I certainly don’t live up to its demanding standards. And that’s OK. One of the conclusions of this argument is that it’s impossible to be perfectly moral. By accepting that, and keeping it in the back of my mind, I do a little better each day.

For a long time, people told me eating meat was wrong and I refused to believe them, because I thought it would be impossible for me not to eat meat. Then one day, I accepted that they were right and I was doing the wrong thing and I decided I could live with that. I wasn’t perfect. But shortly after I decided that, meat started seeming less and less attractive, and I started eating less and less, and now I don’t eat it at all anymore.

Accepting you’re immoral is the first step to being a more moral person.

  1. This thought experiment comes from philosopher John Rawls, although its conclusion has been modified by Peter Singer

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 14, 2009


I agree with your premise that to be morally good you should be working for the world that you would want before you knew which life you would lead.

I just want to point out that a good utilitarian needs to be very careful in the judgment of which actions are good and bad, because there are often second and third order consequences to out actions we don’t immediately consider.

Your friends that break into MIT, for example, erode away the rule of law and so in some way erode the social contract that keeps this society running. They also steal a fractional bit of money from each person that exists in the MIT ecosystem. I’m not trying to say that isn’t worth it, perhaps it is, but it needs to be considered.

Similarly at least some forms of aid to the poor seem to do more harm than good once you consider second order effects. I won’t say all do, that’s just a little too convenient, but you see what I’m saying.

posted by Alex on September 14, 2009 #

Perhaps those friends of yours should instead create some value, exchange it for money, and use that money the make to help those in need, instead of damaging property, stealing goods, and probably causing spending on security services to be raised, all a net-loss. Each takes time. One is clearly better for everybody.

posted by Chris Thiessen on September 14, 2009 #

There are two problems with that famous thought experiment: 1) “You can’t get there from here.” An appeal to an original position or any other objective ideal is unlikely to accomplish much, since there never has nor will be a time we can dispassionately discuss justice. We are always here in the middle of the struggle. 2) “We all have dog in the fight.” Another thought experiment that tries to divide a chocolate cake to maximize justice shows there is no objective way to chose between the baker, the chocolate lover, the hungriest, etc.

Amartya Sen’s new book, The Idea of Justice, takes a different approach: addressing injustice instead of searching for the ideal just society. Very interesting. I’m reading it now.

posted by Warren Yoder on September 14, 2009 #

When I was up in the heavens, I looked at a study saying that overall wealth is increased when property rights are respected, and decided that was the greater good I wanted for the world.

posted by Joe on September 14, 2009 #

Every time you commit a crime there’s a risk you could get caught, which could be really bad. Although I certainly accept that committing a crime could be the right thing to do. I’m in favor of illegally ripping CDs you checked out from the library, for instance.

Are any of your friends trying to acquire wealth and power by more traditional means so they can turn around and do good with it?

posted by John Maxwell IV on September 14, 2009 #

Unfortunately or fortunately there is a system that tried to bring equality to the world and it has failed miserably due to a fact that it took for granted since it started. This system tried to take from the rich to give to the poor, and thought maybe the poor wouldn’t be as poor with what the other fortunate people had. It forgot one thing that is what keeps this system going, it forgot the human need to own something, anything, or everything. From personal experience when you take away the goal of maybe one day I will at least own something, you take away the hope to live, we are greedy by nature, and communism has been trying to eradicate that desire since 1905 and still fails miserably. What you are suggesting we do or how we should act is been tried already, it’s nothing new and it’s still an impossible goal to reach. The needs of the many does always outweigh the needs of the few, it’s very true but because we are trapped in our miserable human nature it’s impossible to achieve. Mark Twain explains it better in “Letters from earth”.

posted by Levi on September 14, 2009 #

I have replied on Hacker News, see link below


posted by Tichy on September 15, 2009 #

Need is no valid claim upon the life or property of another person. If two of your friends request to borrow your television, you’d certainly consider which friend you like more along with how much he wants the television. Who the television goes to is not dictated by petty need. You can’t really love everybody.

Morality comes from the basic choice to live or to die. If you’re reading this you’ve almost certainly chosen to pursue living. As a human you must decide which decisions coincide with your decision to live by rationality and reason. By deciding that you have the right to live, you also decide that you have the right to the things you need to live, your property and freedom. Further, to be moral you need to decide what is of value to you and what helps your own life. A rational man will thus do his best to produce the best product or service in order to receive fair compensation. He serves his OWN self. He doesn’t take handouts, he doesn’t give away things he desires to people he knows nothing about.

Altruism / Sacrifice are about destroying that which is good about yourself, your property, or your life so that something less good can profit. In other words, altruism is giving people less noble gifts they haven’t earned. Its redistribution of wealth from the good to the evil. Communism isn’t impractical, its immoral.

posted by Lance Boyer on September 15, 2009 #

“None of us yet know which bodies we would be born into or which parents we’d have, so none of us can possibly be biased. Aren’t we all going to want to promote the greatest good overall?”

Well, that’s the idea of the parable, but, in a way, it’s ultimately rather trivial.

1) It’s a logically self-consistent answer to say “No - I want a system with a few winners and everyone else loses, because I will be one of the winners”. This is not abstract - many people in your social circle make their living by peddling exactly this idea.

2) There are many intellectual servants of the ultra-rich who have as their jobs trying to convince everyone that the greatest good is produced by a social system with ultra-rich (examples too numerous to mention).

So, it doesn’t go far.

posted by Verisign DBMS on September 15, 2009 #

You can also send comments by email.

Email (only used for direct replies)
Comments may be edited for length and content.

Powered by theinfo.org.