On Philosophy

July 22, 2006

Community Ethics and Self-Sacrifice (a.k.a. Altruism)

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:14 am

In my recent posts I have been exploring the idea that: “it is ethical to act in the best interests of the community, and it is unethical to act against the best interests of the community.” (from here) I also stated that it was unethical to remove someone from the community against their will, which forbids ethics from mandating that we treat some people badly in order to benefit the rest of the community, because this would be equivalent to removing those people from the community.

Obviously then the above principles, taken together, would not permit ethics to mandate that individuals act in a self-sacrificing* manner (since that would be the same as mandating that certain people cut themselves off from the community in certain cases). However if an individual chose to sacrifice their own interests for those of the community that action would certainly be seen as good. So while the ethical principles given here don’t seem to mandate self-sacrifice they do seem to encourage it. This leads to the following possible generalization: instead of mandating what individuals should do perhaps ethics simply mandates what they shouldn’t to (specifically they shouldn’t do anything morally wrong), leaving the morally good options as some kind of favored or preferable choice. Another way of looking at this idea is that the laws of ethics are possibly in the form of “thou shall not”, and that rules about what to do are just suggestions as to how to behave better.

Of course this possibility can only be considered a real alternative to the standard view that ethics mandates the action that is morally right if we allow that some choices are ethically indifferent (neither right nor wrong). Specifically we have to accept that some actions may be morally good, but to not do them may be morally indifferent, because if it was true that the opposite of every morally good action was a morally wrong action then rules that told people not to do a morally wrong action would be the same as telling them to do the morally right action. Of course some possible actions are structured in this way, for example how one chooses to drive, as presented yesterday. However the situation of self-sacrifice is one example of a situation that isn’t composed of a choice between right and wrong actions. It seems to me that the choice to sacrifice your own interests for those of other people is a good action, and that the opposite course of action, to simply keep living your life normally, is just morally indifferent.

We must ask ourselves though: does this view of the moral law lead to the problem of ethical apathy? Specifically does it lead to a community where everyone goes about their business ignoring the problems of other people? I think that it does, and since a community that lives in this way certainly isn’t thriving we should reject this interpretation of ethical laws, since our initial conception of ethics was that it was good for the community.

Of course this leads us back to the problem of self-sacrifice. It seems like ethics must mandate self-sacrifice, since it is the good thing to do, and at the same time it must not mandate it. The way out of the paradox is to more closely consider what kind of self-sacrifice we are considering. For example some actions of self-sacrifice don’t significantly hurt or set back the individual (for example a person’s setting aside some of their time to help an old lady across the street), and these should be mandated by ethics (since they don’t require the individual to remove themselves from the community). However other actions of self-sacrifice do ask the individual to give up a lot, perhaps too much, and I would argue that these actions are not mandated by ethics, although a person who chose to engage in such acts of self-sacrifice for the community would certainly be praiseworthy. Thus I would say that ethics mandates that people always take the good action except when it demands too much of them. What is too much? Well that is hard to define, and I am not quite ready to commit to one standard or another yet, but it certainly involves finding a balance between what is good for the community and what is good for the individual. (And people definitely should not be able to excuse their own bad behavior by claiming that the good course of action demanded too much.)

You may be wondering why I went through that whole middle part if I was going to arrive at the above conclusion. Well, writing it certainly helped me clarify my thoughts on the issues, but more importantly concerns about whether ethics is about rules that demand certain actions, or if they simply forbid the bad ones, can be applied to many ethical systems, which will all deal with what I have called the problem of ethical apathy differently.

* Here I am using self-sacrifice to mean any action that is not in the best interest of the individual engaging in it, but which is in the best interests of other people. Others might call this kind of behavior altruism.

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