ETHICAL MEANS AND ETHICAL ENDS
By Robert E. Podolsky
I distinguish here four categories of unethical acts and note that the most harmful in our society are those in which the decision to act unethically is the result of ignorance or misunderstanding concerning basic ethical principles. In particular I examine the most harmful and widespread fallacy that ethical ends can be attained by unethical means. This simple mistaken notion is arguably the single greatest source of evil in the world today. When this fact is generally understood the world of humanity will be a far better place in which to live.
Types of “Sins”
At any given time a person wishing to act ethically must choose a particular action over other possibilities knowing that the information on which the decision to act is based is incomplete. Therefore the individual making the choice must estimate the probabilities of various consequences that are foreseen as possible results of the choices available knowing that unimagined consequences are possible and that yet-to-be-imagined choices may exist with still more unforeseen consequences. Sometimes the moral individual makes these choices in full awareness of their personal limitations and sometimes not. But no one can know with certainty all the outcomes of their acts, not even after the action has taken place.
For the reasons given above, we all make mistakes in choosing our actions; and sometimes our actions, made in moral good faith, have results that we deem unethical. Knowing this is humbling to us all. When it happens we say, “Oh, if only I had known; I would have acted differently”. For lack of a better name, let me call these unintended lapses “Type One Sins” or T-1s for short. Such moral lapses are literally unavoidable no matter how committed we are to acting as ethically as possible. They are made with the least possible awareness that the outcome will be unethical.
Now let us consider unethical acts undertaken with more awareness on the part of the one acting that the action will have destructive results. At the other end of the spectrum from the T-1s are actions that are taken knowing full well that they are hurtful and destructive; yet they are taken nonetheless; the actor often enjoying the knowledge that someone is being hurt. Such actions are sadistic at best and unmitigatedly evil in their more extreme manifestations. Let us call such actions “Type Four Sins” or T-4s for short.
Enacted in the absence of malice are those hurtful actions taken with regret on the part of the one acting; believing that circumstances render it the most ethical choice available. For instance, consider the medic who administers an emergency tracheotomy to save the life of a person choking to death in spite of the fact that there is some pain inflicted in the process. The medic takes no pleasure in the infliction of this pain; recognizes that the infliction of pain is unethical and does so anyway seeing no other way to save the patient’s life. Let us call unethical acts of this variety “Type Three Sins” or T-3s for short.
And finally I come to the subject of this article; namely those moral lapses that result in unethical outcomes because the person acting lacks a fundamental understanding of ethics. This category, which I shall call “Type Two Sins” or T-2s for short, is, as we shall see, the most serious challenge on the planet to humanity’s long-range survival.
T-3s are usually mitigated in their harmfulness by the thoughtfulness and reluctance of the person acting.
But T-2s are another story altogether. As we shall see, their destructive scope can be systemic; they have the potential to make humanity extinct; and, what is more, they are often institutionalized by governments, businesses, religions, and other powerful interest groups whose resources make them far more destructive than T-1s, T-3s, and T4s together.
Defining the Good Act
For an in depth discussion of ethical principles the reader is referred to EPILOGUE: The Bloodless Revolution that begins on page 53, and the Bill of Ethics given in Appendix A preceding. Most of us have no problem understanding that an act or behavior that benefits someone and harms no one is clearly ethical. Similarly we understand intuitively that an act or behavior that harms someone and benefits no one is clearly unethical. Our difficulties with ethical concepts begin when we contemplate an act or behavior that has both beneficial and harmful consequences. So, for purposes of the present discussion, consider the following two definitions as candidates for the foundation of a system of ethics.
1. An ethical act is one that benefits at least one person (even if only the person acting) while harming no one (including the person acting).
2. An ethical act is one that causes more benefits to people than it does harm.
For the present I put aside the task of defining what constitutes a “benefit” or” “harm”. That part is comparatively easy. Just assume for the moment that adequate definitions of these terms are in fact available. The hard part is the choice between the two definitions. The first definition asserts that to be ethical an act must harm no one; and that therefore an act that harms someone is unethical. This definition therefore forbids the achievement of ethical ends by unethical means.
The second definition, however, allows the use of unethical (harmful) means if the act does more benefit than harm. Let’s assume for the moment that it is possible to quantify benefits and harms (this can in fact be done) and notice that this definition would lead us to believe that ethical ends can be achieved by unethical means. This has in fact been the ethic, which most human societies have adopted. Opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, this is the preferred choice of governments, corporations, and religious institutions worldwide. It is historically what we have actually done.
As similar as these definitions seem, the outcomes produced by the choice of one or the other are as different as night and day. One choice leads to the maximization of peace, love, and prosperity and the other leads to wars, genocide, poverty, cruelty, exploitation and slavery. There are at least three distinct and essentially independent proofs of the preceding assertion. I call these the “Historical Proof”, the “Golden Rule Proof”, and the “Logical Proof”. These are presented in the following.
THE HISTORICAL PROOF
Values and Beliefs
To help understand the distinction between the two definitions of a good act and its significance I review the concepts of values and beliefs. I have personally interviewed over a thousand people asking questions about what they want more of in life; what they really value. The similarity between people’s answers is pretty amazing. Health, basic comforts, spiritual peace of mind, love, freedom, mobility, good relationships and time to enjoy them; access to truth; mental stimulation, work that feels meaningful, growth stimuli, pleasure, happiness, and opportunities to enhance the lives of others are among those frequently mentioned. It is not hard for most of us to agree on what is “good”; what we value. In this respect humanity is pretty homogeneous. We have little disagreement about our basic values.
Far more difficult it is to reach any kind of agreement on what will actually bring us what we value. What we believe is needed in order to attain what we want we refer to as our individual belief system. All living things have values and belief systems. Even a plant that has just enough awareness to value sunlight may turn its leaves perpendicular to the rays of the sun in the belief that this will increase its access to that which it values.
When it comes to belief systems we tend to lose our objectivity; to trust faith over truth even though reality consistently demonstrates the fact that objective truth is repeatable, verifiable, and pragmatically irrefutable. In other words we tend to believe what we want to believe even if our collective experience contradicts us.
Let’s go back to the example of the plant that turns its leaves perpendicular to the rays of the sun. In situations where plants compete for sunlight those that have this awareness, belief, and ability enjoy a competitive advantage. Other things being equal, they do get more sun than their less phototropic counterparts. This fact has been thoroughly established by many experiments by many different experimenters using a wide range of techniques. So in the plant’s case the belief that phototropism maximizes sunlight reception is correct. One might say that plants that believe otherwise are wrong and that many of them suffer for lack of the correct belief. In fact, some have probably become extinct for lack of the correct belief.
Similarly when we choose the basic definition of our ethics, that which we define as a good act, we may or may not choose correctly that which will optimize our chances of getting what we most value in life. If we choose incorrectly we too may become extinct for lack of the correct belief system. In this way we can compare the values of various belief systems. Definitions, like other statements are composed of information that can either be “true” or “false”. True information is that which when believed increases the intelligence of the believer. “Intelligence” in this context is the ability to predict and control events in the observable universe, or equivalently to initiate and sustain causal relationships between such events. This definition of true information is the basis of science and in many ways can be seen as defining science. That is to say any discipline that uses this definition of truth may be said to be a science.
Now let’s review the two definitions stated previously which I from now on refer to as E1 (Ethic 1) and E2 (Ethic 2) respectively:
1. An ethical act is one that benefits at least one person (even if only the person acting) while harming no one (including the person acting).
2. An ethical act is one that causes more benefits to people than it does harm.
These two definitions are similar in that both value “benefits” while seeking to avoid “harms”. But each of these definitions, when accepted, yields a dramatically different belief system. In other words while sharing the fundamental values inherent in each definition, people adopting one or the other of these definitions as the basis for their behavior will behave very differently. As in the case of plant phototropism, there have been enough “experiments” with these two definitions for us to know how individuals and groups develop when one or the other of these two ethics is adopted. One of these definitions is “true” and yields a belief system that maximizes the intelligence of the believer; and the other is “false” because it substantially diminishes the intelligence of its believer.
The true definition is the first: “An ethical act is one that benefits at least one person (even if only the person acting) while harming no one (including the person acting).” Individuals and groups adopting this definition are universally better off than those who don’t. We’ll have more to say about this later.
The second definition turns out to be one of humanity’s greatest stumbling blocks. It often seduces us into forgetting that the choice of the “lesser evil” is still a choice of evil. Governments, corporations, and religious bureaucracies throughout the world have long given in to the temptation to adopt this definition and the belief systems that result from its adoption. The unacknowledged prioritization of the desires for power, money, and self-righteousness lead the adopters of this definition to think that if they benefit from their decisions, that harm done to others is acceptable. It is easy for such people to see that they benefit more than they are harmed by this ethic (at least on a short-term basis); and therefore not so easy to see that the ethic itself is flawed and that it causes them and others enormous harm on a long-term basis.
Let’s examine some of the historical consequences of this false belief system. One common theme that results from the adoption and institutionalization of E2 is the idea that the well being of some people (sometimes referred to as “the few”) must be sacrificed for the well being of others (sometimes called “the many”). Hence:
- All instances of slavery throughout history are based on this premise, resulting in the suffering and annihilation of millions of people.
- Religions that condoned or required human sacrifice were based on this premise; which is part of the reason that most such religions are essentially extinct today.
- Marxist-Leninist regimes have always been based on this premise, resulting in near-universal poverty for those living in such countries.
- The government practice of taxation is based on this belief, resulting in the financial enslavement of billions of people today. I would go so far as to assert (Podolsky’s theorem) that every time a government seeks to solve a societal problem by levying a tax that in the long run the society is harmed far more than it benefits.
- The rise of corporate power and its concomitant partnership with government is the result of this belief; and results in the disenfranchisement of billions of people worldwide.
- The power-ascendancy of religious organizations is the result of this misconception, and has been the basis of pogroms, jihads, crusades, holy wars, inquisitions and similar large-scale atrocities for thousands of years.
- Many activities seen as normal components of war are based on this idea; not the least of which is the concept that civilian casualties are an acceptable price to pay to win a war.
These are just a few examples of institutionalized T-2 sins as I have defined them here. Each and every one of them has at one time or another been justified by adoption of E2 as the prevailing ethic. This historical perspective tells us that these evils occur in spite of our wish to cause more good than harm; and in fact happen in large measure because we chose to define a good or ethical act as one that creates more benefits than harms without placing a limit on the amount of harm that is permissible. How can this be?
To answer this question let’s go back and take a closer look at the consequences of Ethics Definition Number 1. It states: An ethical act is one that benefits at least one person (even if only the person acting) while harming no one (including the person acting). Note that this definition logically implies that any act that is harmful to someone is unethical…by definition. Acceptance of this definition precludes all the harmful consequences listed above as resulting from Definition 2. It means it is not acceptable to sacrifice the one for the benefit of the many. It is not acceptable to take away people’s resources by force no matter who benefits; so only voluntary “taxes” are ethical and Marx’s redistribution of wealth is unethical. Control of government by institutions that place a highest value on power or profits is unethical; so public disempowerment by corporations and organized religions is necessarily unacceptable. And of course, warfare that harms non-combatants is also unethical, as are business practices that degrade the environment.
To put it bluntly, our society is in a mess today because we don’t have an institutionalized understanding that ethical ends cannot be achieved by unethical means. If our institutions incorporated this awareness and committed themselves to Ethics Definition 1 (E1) all the aforesaid T-2 sins would be abolished and a far more successful society would have a chance to evolve. This is the most important issue that humanity faces today; yet here in the United States, one of the most successful and enlightened countries in the world, we don’t address this issue publicly; our presidential candidates give no hint of being aware of it; and the media for all their investigative expertise are oblivious to it.
At this point I have one unfinished item to deal with. How are we to recognize “benefits” and “harms”? The best definition I have seen is that an act is beneficial if it increases someone’s creativity or any of its logical equivalents. A resource is a logical equivalent of creativity if the increase or decrease of that resource necessitates a corresponding increase or decrease in creativity and vice versa. Some examples of creativity’s logical equivalents are awareness, love, objective truth, personal growth, and evolution. Similarly, an act is harmful if it limits or diminishes creativity or any of its logical equivalents for anyone. It should also be noted that creativity might be thought of as the product of ethical awareness and intelligence as symbolized by the equation C=EI, where C can be positive or negative; and negative creativity is the equivalent of destructiveness or entropy maximization. In this sense “evolution” and “entropy” are logical equivalents of “good” and “evil”.
In the first paragraph of this chapter I said that the single greatest source of evil in the world today is the idea that ethical ends can be achieved by unethical means. Subsequently I have shown that this mistaken notion historically generates unethical deeds of the T-2 variety and that such misdeeds are widely institutionalized and wreak great harm on all humanity. One of these Type Two sins I have not yet mentioned; and it is arguably the most destructive. It is called “bureaucracy”. “Bureaucracy” is often thought to be a synonym for “organization”; but it is not. It is not even a logical equivalent of organization. As John David Garcia first pointed out to me, bureaucracy is the systematic elimination of corrective feedback; and at its worst is the elimination of feedback concerning ethics. It is this phenomenon that brought down the Soviet Union and the Roman Empire and many other regimes throughout history. It is gradually destroying the United States and its allies even now. Unless we reverse this entropy-increasing trend we too will go the way of earlier fallen regimes and quite possibly we may destroy all humanity in the process.
When employees the world over can go to their “superiors” and criticize their employers’ ethics without fear of reprisals, bureaucracy will no longer be a major problem for humanity. When those same employees can reveal their challenges to those same “superiors” and receive helpful feedback that makes them better at their jobs we will have little to fear from the depredations of bureaucracy. Until that day the insistence by so many that ethical ends can be achieved by unethical means will continue to eat away at our species’ potential. Which force will dominate our lives in this new century; evolution or entropy?
THE “GOLDEN RULE PROOF”
Many people claim to live by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But I shall prove now that choosing E2 as one’s operative ethic is in contradiction to the Golden Rule.
One obvious implication of the Golden Rule is the admonition, “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” This is a corollary of the Golden Rule, as it follows from it by logic alone. Of course both admonitions could be contained in one by stating the rule: “Do unto others only as you would have them do unto you.”
Now consider what happens when one takes an action that is constrained only by the E2 ethic. In general such an action has consequences that produce both beneficial and harmful effects where the harms are constrained to be less than the benefits. In some instances the benefits and harms will be sustained by the same individual; but in general the benefits and harms are permitted to apply to separate people, whereby one or more persons are benefited and one or more are harmed. Now I ask, “Did the people harmed volunteer to be harmed? Did we do unto them as we would have them do unto us?” In all honesty we can only answer “NO, OF COURSE NOT” to these questions. Therefore the E2 ethic is an insufficient constraint to prevent its adherents from doing unto others as they would NOT have others do unto themselves. The E2 ethic therefore unequivocally violates the Golden Rule and should be unacceptable to anyone who esteems the Golden Rule as their highest ethic.
THE LOGICAL PROOF
In this section I shall prove by logic alone that the E2 ethic is unacceptable if we are ever to have universal peace and prosperity. I do this because some of us do not give any special credence to ethics such as the Golden Rule because it derives from biblical lore. No matter. We can show in effect that the E2 ethic contains its own contradiction; that an act sanctioned by E2 must be unethical if it is not also sanctioned by E1.
To understand this proof one must first consider the fact that in general an act sanctioned by E2, unless also sanctioned by E1, will have as consequences both beneficial and harmful effects. Observing those effects we recognize a principle of separability: An act or behavior, which has both beneficial and harmful effects, is logically and ethically indistinguishable from two acts, one having beneficial consequences and the other having harmful consequences. This fact is apparent when you consider that after the consequences have been manifested you cannot tell whether the cause of those consequences was one act or two.
Now I go back to an earlier statement. An act that has only beneficial consequences is clearly ethical; and an act that has only harmful consequence is clearly unethical. From this we deduce that in general an E2 sanctioned behavior is the logical and ethical equivalent of two acts, one of which is ethical and the other unethical. But a behavior cannot be both ethical and unethical. Any behavior that encompasses an unethical act must be unethical. Therefore I conclude that any act sanctioned by E2 that is not also sanctioned by E1 must be unethical. Therefore adoption of E2 must lead to unethical behavior. This is how the institutionalization of E2 causes so many serious societal problems (T-2 sins). If we have any hope of success as a species, humanity must come to grips with this issue by institutionalizing E1 in place of E2.
The choice of an ethic determines the quality of the values and belief systems that derive therefrom. As we have seen, the ethical definition that leads to a healthier society is the E1 ethic that defines an ethical act as one that benefits someone without harming anyone. I believe I have proven unequivocally that adoption of the E2 ethic (which defines as ethical any act that results in more benefit than harm) must lead to unethical outcomes; and in particular has led to wholesale evils through the attempt to achieve ethical ends by unethical means. The “Historical Proof” shows that human experience is a clear demonstration of the failure of E2 to limit the harms done in the name of benefits for the many. The “Golden Rule Proof” validates this empirical observation by showing that the E2 ethic violates the Golden Rule. And finally the “Logical Proof” shows that E2 contains its own contradiction; so that any institution defining its ethics by adoption of E2 is likely to create more harms than benefits in spite of its intention to do otherwise.
Based on the above, one might well ask how the E1 Ethic is adopted by Titania. So lets talk a bit about Titanian Organization.