Ethics by numbersWe might imagine that numbers can resolve an ethical dilemma. Faced with two inescapable ethical choices, A and B: A will cause two deaths and B will cause one. B seems the obvious ethical choice. In the real world, ethical choices are rarely so straightforward. In fact, even in the hypothetical world the choice isn't so clear.
Ethics 101When I was a student in Ethics 101, Professor Glass presented us with this standard thought experiment. You are on a boat cast adrift at sea with six other passengers. You have supplies enough for six people to survive. There is no hope of rescue. If you do nothing all seven people will die. What do you do? How do you decide the ethical or moral course of action? The scenario allows only four options:
- Do nothing.
- Save yourself.
- Sacrifice yourself
- "The greatest good for the greatest number of people."
Types of ethical behaviourOption 1: Do nothing and everyone dies seems the obvious worst-possible choice. But the combination of religion and Hollywood movies has conditioned us to believe that some unlikely, miraculous, heroic event will save the day. To take a life would be immoral, therefore God will save us. The hero will come up with some unimaginable combination of trickery and courage to save us all because that's what always happens in the movies.
Option 2: Save yourself. "Anybody but me" is the ethical axiom of egoism. The ethical thing for you to do is to guarantee your own survival no matter what. Whatever choice is best for you--enlightened self-interest--is what is ethical. This is the point of view upheld by Ayn Rand in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, and by her acolyte Chairman of the Federal Reserve until shortly before the collapse of 2008. This is the ethical position underpinning American capitalism.
Option 3: Altruism. Being ethical means putting others before yourself, operating in their interest rather than your own. Heroism? A "messiah complex"? Naivety? Wishful thinking? The egoist loves--and feeds on--altruists! In theory, this is the ethical basis of Christianity: "love thy neighbour as thyself" and "turn the other cheek."
Option 4: "The greatest good for the greatest number." This is the central maxim of utilitarianism. According to Professor Glass, utilitarianism was the only viable, ethical position. (Did I mention that Professor Glass was a Communist?) Young upstart that I was, I argued quite vigorously against the Professor's position. The word "good" was synonymous with "moral" and "ethical"; therefore, the maxim "the greatest good" begged the question. (This was back in the day when people understood what "to beg the question" meant.) Actually, it was the worst degree of "begging the question" because it created a tautology: "the most ethical" ("greatest good") is "ethical." Well, duhh!