On Philosophy

July 2, 2006

An Unethical Code

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 1:00 am

It is sort of a side project of ethical philosophy to generate codes that people could live by. (I call it a side project since the primary goal of ethical philosophy is to study ethics, not make prescriptive statements.) Here I will set forth such a code of action, however unlike many such systems it will be based on principles other than those I have described as “ethical” (see here). This is not to say that following such a code would lead you to do “the wrong thing”, simply that the motivation for following such a code probably won’t come from ethical intuitions. (For example such a code may end up being adopted because it is in the best interests of society as a whole, see here.)

The basis of the code I propose here is the idea that individuals can best meet their goals through bonds of personal loyalty to other people. This follows from that realization that while we may want some outcome (say world peace) we may not have the knowledge or resources to accomplish it ourselves.

First I assume that individuals must be able to put their goals into a total ordering (such that every goal is more or less important than every other goal). After observing the behavior/credentials/ect of another person an individual may decide that that person is worth obeying in order to achieve one or more of their goals. Hereafter I will refer to this process as swearing loyalty to someone. The individual should then obey the person they are loyal to absolutely, as long as their commands do not interfere with the commands of someone else they are loyal to. In the case of a conflict the command to obey should be determined by the individual’s total ordering of goals. The individual is expected to only be loyal to a single individual for the purpose of accomplishing a goal (for example the individual shouldn’t swear loyalty to both A and B for the purpose of world peace). Finally, the individual should only break their bond of loyalty after being presented with evidence that the person they are loyal to is motivated to act against the goal that was the purpose of the bond.

Of course those who receive the loyalty of others have responsibilities as well. First they must only give commands to an individual that are for the purpose of fulfilling the goal that the individual swore loyalty in order to accomplish. Secondly they should discharge those who are loyal to them when they cannot or will not act to achieve the goals of those individuals. Finally they have an obligation to be the most competent person for achieving those goals or to swear loyalty to someone who is more competent.

What kind of society would emerge from following such a code? Well for the most part it would be hierarchal, where person A would be loyal to B, who is loyal to C, ect, so that one person may end up indirectly having authority over a large number of people. It is not true that all relations must be strictly hierarchal though. For example A may be loyal to B for world peace, but B may be loyal to A when it comes to interior design. Of course there may be people who would try to exploit such a system as well. For example they might pretend they care about world peace when all they really care about is amassing money. It is specifically for this reason that above I mentioned that it was the responsibility of each person to make sure that those they swore loyalty to are actually faithful to the goals they said they were. Of course any system is open to abuse, so perhaps it isn’t meaningful to even worry about this issue.

As I have mentioned earlier the real deciding factor is if the society that adopts such a system will be better than its neighbors. I would argue that by relieving the burden of individuals to make every choice, and by allowing them to delegate some of their worries upwards, people will have more time to actually make a difference instead of worrying if they are doing the right thing. Secondly the obedience of people to each other makes it easier to accomplish larger goals. For example a company whose workers are loyal to the management doesn’t need to bother as much with performance reviews and status reports, since if the attitude of personal loyalty is pervasive the workers will, on average, do their best for the company, and in return their bosses, on average, will do their best to reward them appropriately. This is much more efficient than a system where people are each striving to benefit themselves, because then everyone must constantly be watched, or else they will slack off. Even if everyone acts “ethically”, for example as utilitarians, there is no reason to expect them to be efficient. They may reason as follows: my contribution to the company is so small that there is little benefit to others from my work. However there is a large benefit to me if I slack off, thus I should slack. Once again you end up in a situation where everyone must constantly be watched in order to do his or her job properly.

Should you rush out and start living by this code? No, like most codes it is only effective when the majority of people already agree to the ideas behind it, and I doubt many people in modern society agree with these sentiments.



  1. Just out of curiosity, what kind of metaethics do you subscribe to? Personally, I find myself leaning toward both a constructivist account which is based not in rationality, but rather in the mindless evolution of language and social norms. I see this model as bordering, but not actually falling under a sort of norm-expressivism non-cognitivism.

    Comment by Jeff G — July 2, 2006 @ 10:44 am

  2. Yes, that seems about right. However don’t forget that any account of ethics needs to say why people, as individuals, behave “ethically”, and moreover why people SHOULD behave “ethically” (however ethics is defined). Constructivist accounts often do a fine job in defining what ethics is, but often lack an explanation of why an individual is motivated to act ethically, and why this motivation is right.

    Comment by Peter — July 2, 2006 @ 3:02 pm

  3. I assume that individuals must be able to put their goals into a total ordering

    Totally, completely, ridicolously broken assumption.

    Comment by Eivind — July 4, 2006 @ 2:08 am

  4. Got a reason to back that up?

    Comment by Peter — July 4, 2006 @ 2:12 am

  5. I am sure that Hobbes would find your code quite agreeable. As I read it, I was struck by the similarities in your line of thinking. If you’ve read him, you will remember that Hobbes’ philosophy was rooted in man’s obligation to enter into agreement with a sovereign, primarily out of his right to protect himself. Obviously, the argument is much more complicated than that, but suffice it to say your third paragraph reads exactly like Hobbes.

    Hobbes also claims that morality does not exist intrinsically in nature. Likewise, your code’s motivation is outside ethical implications and chiefly dependent on rational self-interest.

    I do not believe that, exercising my freedom to enter into agreement with others to satisfy my highest goals, I will thus achieve “the best interests of society as a whole”. Certainly you can imagine people contracting to do damage to other members of society, while satisfying their own intersts. For instance, if I am a tank driver and you are a gunner, I would see it benefical to enter into agreement with you to cooperate and blow up a third person in order to take his belongings.

    On the other hand, I think you intended this code to exist on top of a society constructed with laws. Even still, I do not think the code would assist people in the corporate structure you discussed toward the end. How are people not “striving to benefit themselves” when they enter into your code? Clearly, the employee is only cooperating because he found this employer coincided the best with his ordinally ranked goals. Supposing they were to honor the individual loyalty stressed in your 3rd paragraph, how is this not any different than reality? People do not “slack off” at the job because their moral code permits it. You argue that the utilitarian individual is wrong because his rational self interest, the benefit he recieves from slacking which outweighs the damage to the company, is not in the interest of the greater company. Obviously everyone cannot be a utilitarian slacker as the company would suffer immensely. So, your solution to everyone tending to slack (out of what some might call human instinct) is to require them to all voluntarily honor their loyalty not to because this serves their rational self interest in ways they may not forsee.

    Comment by Matt — July 4, 2006 @ 4:10 am

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