Monday, June 11, 2007

What is “ethical” behavior?

Update: I notice a number of links from the course management system at Olivet Nazarene University. As a student myself, I'm curious about what y'all have to say about my work.

What, precisely, constitutes "ethical" behavior?

Update: Based on comments, I see I've omitted a important qualifier. I'm talking here only about what constitutes the general domain of behavior that pertains specifically to ethics, not about what constitutes good ethical behavior or behavior I would always approve of.

Kant is notorious for defining (or appearing to define) a behavior as "ethical" if and only if the behavior is not motivated in any way, directly or indirectly, by one's own self-interest. Divine Command Theory holds that ethical behavior is compliance with the commands of God. Obviously, by the latter definition, an atheist cannot act ethically; she can at best only simulate ethical behavior; the requisite motivation is necessarily absent. The definition attributed to Kant seems, on basic reflection, physically impossible given the goal-seeking nature of human minds. Although there are religious atheists (e.g. Buddhists), an atheist committed to naturalistic physical monism (a.k.a. scientific materialism) would thus usually reject Kant's definition.

Divine Command Theory is not really subject to rational discussion. No one has improved on Socrates' Euthyphro paradox, and Leibniz' comment,
In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary?
still has considerable rhetorical force.

In any event, adherence to Divine Command Theory simply excludes a priori atheists and members of other religions (for following the wrong commands, not God's) as ethical agents and establishes a fundamental irreconcilable enmity.

Any naturalistic account of ethical behavior must be predicated on observation: What sorts of behavior do we typically call "ethical"? Alternatively, we can construct arbitrary definitions of "ethical" that allow us to create falsifiable theories that account for human behavior.

One definition of "ethical" that seems scientifically fruitful as well as—at least to me—blindingly obvious:
A behavior is "ethical" if and only if it has the foreseeable effect of promoting others' self-interest at the expense of some specific self-interest of the agent.
This definition is a much weakened version of Kant's too-strong definition. Instead of being performed entirely without regard to self-interest, a behavior must merely be contrary to only some self-interest (as well as promoting others' self-interest) to be definitionally ethical.

This definition draws a distinction. It distinguishes behavior which does not promote the self-interest of others, and it distinguishes behavior which, although promoting the self-interest of others, is not contrary to any of one's own self interest. For instance, seeing a movie with a friend would not qualify as a specifically ethical act, since even the value of the companionship itself to one's friend is not (assuming one also values companionship) achieved at any cost at all to one's own self-interest.


  1. I think you may need to add in a bit about not at the same time causing harm to some other third party; or more harm than the good. For instance, it wouldn't count as ethical for A to jump into the water to save B whilst at the same time pushing C in to use as a float. Or something. I'm sure I could improve this example with a bit of thought.

    (This is one of my usual drive-by comments. I often find that if I stopped to think exactly what I wanted to say in response to one of your posts, I would be there for hours, or more probably get distracted and never make a comment at all. I am still on definitions of love. I hope this is not too irritating from your point of view).

  2. Surely an essential component of ethical behaviour is not deliberately or intentionally doing harm to others?

    On love, you - and potentilla - may be interested to look at my post "What is this thing called love?" in anticant's arena on 6 April.

    You probably remember the once-fashionable humanistic therapy definition "unconditional positive regard". Not entirely satisfactory - but a useful guideline sometimes when one is feeling pissed off with a loved-one's hurtful or inconsiderate behaviour.

  3. Unfortunately, "unconditional positive regard" is still the sine qua non of many a clinical therapy education program. And it's damned annoying. I think we (as someone in a clinical field) could far more benefit from something like "constructive judgment" -- after all, that is, in the end, what we're doing. "Humanist" milieus have led to some truly awful therapeutic methods, like holding therapy.

  4. Thanks to potentilla and anticant for pointing out an important omission in the post: I'm talking in the most general sense about the domain of behavior that pertains specifically to ethics, as opposed to ethically neutral behavior. I'm not talking about behavior that is necessarily good, i.e. that I would always approve of.

    I think that behavior that harms a third party would fall under this domain, and might, in some instances also be good. For instance, we apprehend and put murderers, rapists and thieves in prison to both revenge their actual victims and to protect their potential victims.

    Such behavior fits the original two criteria: I pay my tax dollars (which I would otherwise spend for my immediate self-interest) for police and prisons to further—at least in part—the interests of others.

    Because ethics in general pertain to choice, they require some degree of coercion—or at least pressure— of others, which will be contrary to the self-interest of the person being coerced. I thus don't think that A harming C for B's interests would either remove the behavior from the domain, nor entail that the action was bad.

    since police and prisons cost money c

  5. James and anticant: How well does Wikipedia capture your understanding of unconditional positive regard?

  6. potentilla: I often find that if I stopped to think exactly what I wanted to say in response to one of your posts, I would be there for hours, or more probably get distracted and never make a comment at all. ... I hope this is not too irritating from your point of view.

    Irritating? Quite the contrary: I'm flattered that I can inspire you to deepish thought.

  7. Thanks for pointing me to the Wikipedia article on 'unconditional positive regard'. It's a pretty fair summary of Rogers' concept. I'm not an OTT Rogerian, but his approach does have a good deal to commend it as opposed to more mechanistic therapies such as CBT.

    This led me on the the Wikipedia take on 'love' - interesting - and then to 'thought-terminating cliches', where I discovered 'If you are not with us you are against us'. This in turn conjured up visions of George W Bush, who is the ultimate walking thought-terminating cliche. Serendipity!

  8. I have enjoyed your recent lucid contributions to Paul's 'A Challenge to Atheists' thread.

    I just wondered about one adjustment to the definition of ethical behaviour to take into account the role of motivation in the context of arbitrary elements that might influence the outcome of an agent's behaviour.
    If Jones decides to share his sandwich because his friend is hungry I would say that this is ethical behaviour, even if his friend suffers an unforeseeable allergic reaction due to traces of nuts.
    Or if Jones initiates an action in order to benefit somebody else at the expense of some specific self-interest, but the action is thwarted due to elements beyond his control.

    Perhaps the definition:
    A behavior is "ethical" if and only if it has the foreseeable effect of promoting others' self-interest at the expense of some specific self-interest of the agent.
    could be amended to read:
    A behavior is "ethical" if and only if it is enacted with the specific intention of having the foreseeable effect of promoting others' self-interest at the expense of some specific self-interest of the agent.

    I see an advantage of this formulation in that it captures well meaning but thwarted ethical behaviour but a disadvantage in that it is more difficult to verify whether or not a given behaviour is ethical.
    What do you think?

  9. Psiomniac: I think you're right: The element of actual intention has to be there, which I only imperfectly capture using "foreseeable", on the assumption that people do foresee what is foreseeable, and they intend what they foresee. This usage is, however, rather more indirect than I'd like to see in a definition.

    I think "foreseeable" can be replace by "intention" and capture your suggestion.


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