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The Scope of Ethics - part 1

Back when I was a college student, I met someone who had what I thought at the time was an odd meta-ethical belief. In the years since then I've come to understand that it's somewhat common. But I think it's wrong — even dangerously wrong. The troublesome belief is that the proper scope of ethics is to guide interpersonal behavior.

Of course it's true that ethics does guide interpersonal behavior. My position is that ethics has a much broader scope than this. My college adversary explicitly denied this.

I understand why people are led to think that ethics is only about interpersonal behavior. Common rules like "don't steal" and "don't murder" make no sense outside the context of other people. If those kinds of rules dominate your ethical thinking, ethics does seem to have a narrow scope, and would appear irrelevant if you were stranded alone on an island.

Under this narrow idea of ethics, your decisions have moral import only to the extent that they can affect others. For example, learning to play a musical instrument has moral import only if you perform for others. Your private enjoyment of your own playing has no moral significance. (Or perhaps it should be considered immoral, because it consumes time that could otherwise be spent on moral activities.)

The implication of this position is the complete destruction of all personal values. A scientist's pursuit of knowledge is not good, only the communication of discoveries is. Overcoming personal hardship is not praiseworthy, only helping others to do so is. Even mundane things such as keeping a tidy house would have no moral value if you lived alone — it would become good only inasmuch as others benefit from it. Quitting your job and living in idleness until your savings ran out could not be scorned — unless you had dependents. Truth doesn't matter, perseverance doesn't matter, your lifestyle doesn't matter, your productive work doesn't matter… unless someone else notices? Then, and only then, they begin to matter??

Under this sort of ethics, your life is completely in the thrall of others. The meta-ethical principle that only interpersonal interactions are important leads inexorably to an ethics devoid of personal values. Even love is gutted: If the interaction between people is all that has moral import, it doesn't matter who you love. Your preferences for a certain type of partner are irrelevant, one random person is as good as another because you can behave in a loving manner to anyone. You say that you would be unhappy with certain types of people? Too bad — happiness has no moral significance. Emotions are personal, and the personal is irrelevant. As long as you can act happy even though you're unhappy, or act loving even though you don't love, that's good for others. Keep those emotions buried. Fake it! Your entire life will be a lie… but for the good cause of reducing social friction!

Improving interpersonal behavior is the purpose of ethics, right? Why do you seem so dissatisfied?

The rebellion stirring in your mind is the thought, "personal values do matter." Yes, they do. And next time I'll tell you why.


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