Note: I recommend reading the entire article, but if you really need just a summary, scroll down to the bottom of the post and see the “Summary” section. Also, the image on the right is not meant to imply that this article is from Dr. Smith’s book. This is my essay.
Many people today–especially in the atheist/skeptic/naturalist subculture–think of ethics as a set of rules that applies only to interactions with other people. They don’t think that primarily personal decisions can be considered immoral, but only actions that harm (or don’t help) others.
One will find, however, that a great many historical philosophers considered ethics to encompass a complete way of life; both the personal and the social aspects. Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand all regarded ethics as defining the proper way to live. Indeed, the dictionary definition of ethics as “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends,” does not specify that “goodness and badness” must be “social.”
Were all these philosophers wrong in their idea of the basic place of ethics in human life? Were they fundamentally misguided in their whole approach to ethical questions? Is the dictionary definition of ethics wrong? Here I will examine the facts of the case for morality as a set of principles that provide guidance for a complete way of life, versus morality as a set of rules for promoting “proper” social interaction.
Are Normative Generalizations Required for Life When Alone?
Let’s say that at the age of 18, you are shipwrecked on a large island. The guy you were boating with died at sea. The island has trees, rocks and a large freshwater pond. Rescue is very likely to be at least several weeks or months away.
At this point, if you want to continue living, you have three basic options: 1) You can pray to some god or another to save you from your predicament, counting on the fervency of your prayer to sway the deity into helping you. 2) You can mope about cursing the world, wishing and hoping to be fed and sheltered “somehow.” 3) You can rationally assess your situation, your needs and the means required to fulfill those needs, then act based on your thinking to achieve what you judge necessary to survive.
These three options are present at every step of the process of living on the island, and there is nothing that will force your mind to choose any one of the three. (Hunger and thirst may be seen as prompts to prayer, or as excuses to escape through fantasy.) But many modern people, when confronted with the stark and obvious consequences of the different choices, will recognize that number 3 is what will lead to survival.
You have to think about how to build a fire, how to get shelter, how to catch or find food, etc. Succumbing to an irrational fit of rage, in which you destroy your only shelter, could cost you your life. Missing a chance to build a fire before dark, because you stopped for a while to pray, could also cost you your life.
So, if you want to live on that island, thinking and acting on that thought is what you should be doing. Thinking is good for you, being irrational is bad. The normative generalization required for the optimal chance of survival is: Always be rational.
Now let’s go back to civilization and see how the individual’s situation does and does not change.
Socializing as Ultimate Goal or as Means?
Someone might propose that their survival on the island was just a means to getting back to society, so that they can participate in the ultimate goal of existence: socializing with others. Man is a “social animal” they may say, and an individual’s life is worth nothing without everyone else. “Society” is the highest good and highest value for every individual; all normative guidelines are thus social and thus constitute a social morality.
Let’s trace out the logical implications of this view. This means that every solitary moment must be a means to getting into a crowd, or a means to maintaining the crowd, (society) or a means to increasing the crowd’s size. Solitary moments that do not advance any of these things are to be shunned and eliminated as immoral, and people are to do things in groups as large and as often as possible. This includes eating at giant cafeterias every day, playing only sports that involve large teams and large gatherings of fans, watching movies in large theaters and having discussions among all the viewers at the end of the showing, doing homework in large study-groups as much as possible, and always having sex with as many people as possible in giant collective orgies. All the individuals in each community are to have as many children as they can possibly birth and afford. Those who can’t have children are to take care of the children of others as much as they possibly can.
It should now be clear that most people do not act in a manner consistent with “society” or socializing as the true, ultimate goal. In practice, people don’t consistently embrace “being a good person” as synonymous with being community-promoting. For the vast majority of people, socializing is mostly treated as a means to a happy life as an individual.
There is a vast array of activities that people engage in that aren’t means to socializing. These include solitary painting, model airplane building, hang-gliding, watching movies and television, reading, eating dessert or candy while alone….The list goes on and on.
Indeed, the proper significance of social interaction is as a means to individual enjoyment of life. Social relationships are valuable to a person, insofar as they contribute to the person’s material and psychological well-being, and 50-member orgies with complete strangers do not contribute like an intimate encounter with a spouse. (1)
If and to the extent that a social interaction will benefit my life, (long-term happiness) in a given situation, and I pursue it on that basis, that interaction is justified by my own life as the ultimate goal. The social interaction is not an ultimate goal, but a means to my enjoyment of my own life, and is thus self-interested. If the social interaction is an ultimate goal, then this means that it does not serve my long-term happiness, but contradicts it overall. My long-term happiness would be best served by doing something else, but I’m going to do this, instead. (2)
Prudence vs. Ethics?
So now it should be clear, at least, that socialization as the ultimate goal is not descriptive of the vast majority of people. For the sake of this discussion, let’s take it as established that the proper overarching goal for each individual is his own flourishing life. Can we still say that ethics is fundamentally social?
Someone might say that the full set of norms that promote one’s own life are designated by the term “prudence,” and that what we term “ethical” is the subcategory of prudence that governs interactions with other people. This social idea of ethics depends on the notion that there are two “spheres” of human life/choices (sets of “oughts”) that can be neatly separated: the “personal sphere” and the “social sphere.” (Or, more precisely, that the “social sphere” is sharply defined within the total normative realm of prudence.)
But is this really the case? First, let’s look at a couple of examples of ethics in social interactions and see if they can be sharply differentiated from the overall “personal sphere.”
Let’s say a man lies at a job interview for construction foreman and grossly overstates his qualifications. He then finds himself doing a job he’s not qualified for. This results in a great deal of job stress, and within a week, his mismanagement causes one of the workers to be severely injured. He is fired and sued, and thus put into deep debt, joblessness and homelessness. His breach of “social” ethics has changed his “personal” life dramatically.
Now let’s say that a man robs a bank. He’s eventually caught and sent to prison for ten years. As a convicted felon, he can only get a low-paying job. His whole life has changed as a result of violating “social” ethics.
Now, let’s look at a couple of personal decisions and see if they can be separated from the “social sphere.”
Let’s say there’s a high-level businesswoman–an executive–who sees her executive friends mostly at business lunches. One night on a private jet, she has impromptu, unprotected sex with a male colleague. A couple weeks later, she finds out she is pregnant. She now has a personal choice whether to abort the pregnancy or carry it to term. If she aborts the pregnancy, she can continue as an executive and continue meeting her friends for business lunches. If she carries the pregnancy to term and decides to raise the child herself, she will have to quit as an executive for at least 5 years. She will no longer meet her friends for business lunches, but will likely make friends among the women in her pregnancy classes and fellow preschool mothers. Her “personal” decision whether or not to abort affects her social life dramatically.
Now let’s say a man starts using cocaine heavily. His friends, up to the point he started using, were not drug users. He becomes addicted and feels the need to spend a lot of money on his addiction. He no longer goes out with his friends, and they find they can’t do anything for him, so they drift away from him. Cocaine makes him aggressive and he ends up punching his girlfriend and she leaves. His “personal” decision to do drugs has dramatically affected his social life.
We can now see that, so long as one lives in a society, “social” decisions are not separable from “personal” decisions. The personal affects the social and the social affects the personal. We should therefore have a single term for a single set of normative principles encompassing the entire field of human choices. That term is “ethics,” or synonymously, “morality.”
In Ayn Rand’s words, ethics or morality is “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.”
- Many people think that ethics is a set of social rules, whereas many philosophers throughout history have seen ethics as prescribing a way of life. Who’s correct?
- People need the guidance of principles when they are alone, in order to survive. Are these principles a part of ethics or outside of it? (i.e. prudence?) Is surviving alone simply a means of later engaging in social activities? (Thus putting norms for solitary survival within a “social ethics?”)
- Socializing is not the ultimate goal for the vast majority of people. The natural ultimate goal directing one’s choices may include socializing, but must be broader than simple group-promotion. The Objectivist answer to question of an ultimate goal is that it is one’s own flourishing life process, (which produces happiness.) But can ethics still be attached to the subcategory of purely social choices?
- Within a society, a person’s social and personal choices cannot be separated. “Social” choices affect one’s “personal” life; “personal” choices affect one’s “social” life.
- Therefore, one’s choices should be governed by a unified system of values and principles. This is ethics, or synonymously, morality.
- Therefore, ethics is properly regarded as a complete way of life, rather than as a set of social rules.
(1) It should be noted that I have not made the full, inductive, Objectivist case for life as the standard of value of man and other living species. I only assert the conclusion here as a far more plausible and descriptive alternative to socializing as an ultimate goal. For a real, detailed argument for life as the standard of value, see Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, by Tara Smith.
(2) Some people may object here that socializing alone versus my own life alone as the ultimate goal is a false dichotomy. They might ask why we have to choose one or the other, rather than both as ultimate goals. But this objection is based on a misunderstanding of what it means for something to be an ultimate goal (or value.) By its very nature, an ultimate goal must be singular. See: Why Each Person Can Have Only One Ultimate Value.