How Do We Know What To Do For The Best?

Ethics. Ethics is the art and science of the human condition. It is concerned with how we can rationally decide the question of “What to do for the Best?” in any given situation involving human behaviour. (It would also apply to intelligent non-humans, if any such happened to exist.) What is the best for us to do, is also expressed by saying it is what we ought to do or should do. What we ought to do is right and to do it is good. What we ought not to do is wrong and to do what we ought not to do is bad. There may of course be situations where we cannot work out what is for the best. In such cases we have to guess or take a chance or make a judgement based on inadequate evidence. It is our duty to do what we see as being right, but since we think we have 'free will' we are not obliged to follow our best judgement.

Principles. The principles sketched here are based on the scientific world-view. Humans are social animals and have to learn to live together. It is of great importance to have as full information as we can obtain about any situation in order to make informed choices on the evidence available. The way we decide what is right in particular crcumstances is to apply reason to the facts of each case. There are some general principles that can be applied to structure our thought and help us to reach a conclusion.

First principle: Individuality. Our first duty is to ourselves. We should seek our own survival and advantage. Usually this will mean to seek pleasant experiences for ourselves and to avoid pain. This will involve making friends and not making enemies, so really it has wider implications and is not mere selfishness which takes no account of other people, but self-interest which recognises that we exist in a social context. For example: We should try to develop any talents we may have and to overcome inadequacies, this has wider implications, since our developed talents may provide us with a means of earning a living. We should seek to maintain our good health by taking adequate exercise, and to avoid illness by keeping ourselves clean and on a good diet.

Second principle: Sociality. Our second duty is to those spheres of influence nearest to us. This will usually mean our immediate family, friends and local society. But it also applies more generally to those we are able to influence, which in the age of the internet may be much further afield. Once again the criterion of what is good is the evolutionary one of doing that which leads to survival and flourishment. This can usually be judged by what gives pleasure and avoids pain, though deferment of pleasure now may mean greater pleasure or less pain in the near future. This is the old principle of utilitarianism.

Third principle: Universality. Our third duty is to the wider world. Having taken account of our own interests and those of our nearest influences, we are finally able to give our attention to the wider world (assuming that the wider world has not already taken an interest in us). This wider world can itself be seen in terms of a nesting of wider and wider spheres of influence, until it takes in the whole universe and future time, but our knowledge will seldom, if ever, extend sufficently far to make us able to make decisions on such a cosmic scale. "Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?" is a view that apparently goes back to Joseph Addison (1672-1719) in The Spectator.

The Impossibility of Absolute Rules. Religious codes of behaviour usually take the form of a series of commandments, which are absolute moral rules which seem to be intended to apply in all circumstances without exception. However they are only interpreted in this way by extreme fundamentalists. In practice it is necessary to make all sorts of exceptions.

For example: “Thou shalt not kill”, is a useful general rule, but if we are attacked should we not defend ourselves? Should we not have armed forces to defend our countries and authorise members of those forces to kill, when necessary, to defend our interests and allies? Does the rule imply that birth control and abortion are immoral? Does the rule also extend to killing animals for food, or for obtaining medical knowledge? Does it apply to insects that spread disease, or to the harvesting of plants for our nourishment? So evidently there are many cases where the general rule is unethical.

Secular ethics recognises that such general rules need detailed interpretation according to circumstances. There are no simplistic rules that can be applied to solve every ethical problem. It is however perfectly possible to take ethical questions seriously without referring to religion. “What to do for the best?” can require a lot of hard thinking, gathering of evidence, and trial and error. Even then we may get it wrong, as subsequent history may prove.

Some Specific Problems. Secular ethics depends on the facts of each individual case.

Suicide. What of our duty to ourselves if we become ill and unable to work and in pain and with no prospect of improvement, would suicide be a moral choice? Evidently the answer must be yes, but only after having explored all the alternatives.

Dereliction of Duty. What if we have a relative or friend who is very ill and has become a burden to us, more than we can carry without destroying our own health? Would we be morally right in trying to seek help to pass some of the burden to others? Of course. If help is not forthcoming, it could even be right to abandon the burden, hoping that others will be forced to take action. However in a well organised society this should not occur.

A Check List. Other specific problems to be consideredin any expansion of this article. Responsibility : Relationships : Drugs and Drink : Sexual relationships, reproductive rights and sexual health issues : Abortion, Contraception, Age of Consent, Sex for pleasure and for procreation : Gender issues : Women's Equality and rights : The morality of missionary activity : Teaching religious opinion as fact.

Links to help you think

Philip Pullman University of East Anglia Lecture
Thomas Ash Are Morals Objective?
Alec Rawls Christian and Secular Natural Law.
Paul Kurtz Can the Sciences Help Us to Make Wise Ethical Judgments?
Brian E. Hodges Health Career Model.
Moral Objectivism
Edward L. Ericson Ethical Humanist Religion.
R. B. Meyer Howard Carter and the Ancient Egyptians. "... by 3000 BCE the Egyptians possessed a moral code far superior to the Ten Commandments and the raving Hebrew prophets."
The Instructions of Ptah Hotep The oldest book of ethics.
J. Michael Sproule The Maxims of Ptah Hotep as a classic example of rhetoric.
Guardian Letters "... the humanist agenda is almost entirely parasitic upon religious belief itself - humanists are largely defined by what they are against." Giles Fraser.
Guardian Letters "Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one ... Every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the 'ordinary' efforts of a vast majority. We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honour the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behaviour." S. J. Gould.
Steven D. Schafersman Critical Thinking and its Relation to Science and Humanism.

This essay is based on a page that first appeared on the Leicester Secular Society website in 2004.