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The Scope of Ethics - part 2

Last time I treated the notion that "the proper scope of ethics is to guide interpersonal behavior" to an informal reductio ad absurdum, showing that if the notion is taken seriously it leads to the denial of personal values.

I will now present a positive argument for ethics having a very broad scope, encompassing all our choices, even those that have no impact on others. (You may recognize the basic argument as Rand's, but the elaboration is my own.) I made this as short as I think I'm able to.

The foundations of ethics lie in observing the difference between living and nonliving things. The precise biological definition of life is unimportant here, only obvious cases are needed. Plants and animals are alive, rocks and rivers are not. A fundamental aspect of being alive is the possibility of death — living things can become nonliving.

The fact that living things face the alternative of life or death creates a criterion for evaluation. Some things sustain or enhance life; others harm it.

How do these observations lead to ethics? With the addition of the fact that living things must act in order to sustain their lives. If living things did not continuously maintain themselves — if animals did not obtain food and avoid predators, if plants did not draw nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun, if basic cellular metabolism stopped — their life would end. If a living things fails to act to sustain its life, it will die.

All living things, by the nature of being alive, pursue those things that sustain their lives and avoid the things that harm them. Failure in this means death. The determination of what things are beneficial or harmful to an organism depends on the kind of organism in question: Animals need oxygen to survive, but to plants oxygen is a waste product. Similarly, the actions required to sustain life are also grounded in an organism's nature: An animal is biologically incapable of putting down roots in the manner of a plant, and must survive through other means.

(Importantly, the proper unit to consider is the organism, not the cell. Multicellular organisms are composed of a system of specialized cells. An individual part of that system cannot survive without the other parts.)

We are now in a position to apply normative language: based on an organism's nature, certain things are objectively good for its life and it therefore should pursue them. Other things are objectively bad for its life and therefore it should not pursue them.

Up until this point we have taken the pursuit of life as automatic and inescapable. It is not. Some organisms, humans among them, have much more complex behaviors than mere automatic reflexes. Humans in particular are conscious of and have control over our actions. We choose our own behavior, continuously, throughout our entire lives.

Ethics is the science that guides those choices.

If we want to live, we must discover what to value and we must choose actions consistent with the achievement of those values.


The proper scope of ethics is all chosen behavior. This is much broader than simply "interpersonal" behavior. Stranded alone on a desert island, a person faces choices that directly affect their survival. It is the science of ethics that tells them to be rational (and not to panic), to face their situation honestly (and not to irresponsibly hope for rescue), to be productive in collecting food and water (and not to waste it), etc.

Personal virtues and values are a part of ethics even if there's nobody else around to notice them. Even by ourselves we require an ethical system to guide our choices and actions.

Our lives depend on it.


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