The Ethics of Long-Term Natural Consequences
For a very long time now, I have suffered from confusion about ethical issues, and I feel confident that I’m not alone in my soul-searching.
In the recent campaign propaganda, and the related debates, for instance, I’ve been asked to think about my opinions on such things as abortion, war, a possible draft, capital punishment, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research. These truly are tough life and death issues, and I have thought long and hard in an attempt to come up with a consistent system of ethics that will allow me to address them in a meaningful way.
So let’s dig in with a little history.
There are two classic systems of ethics that need to be dispensed with right away, The Golden Rule and The Law.
Before the Golden Rule came The Law. Laws and rules are helpful in directing the least common denominator in what society agrees or God dictates are the rules of thumb for how to proceed, but “The Law” is not Ethics. Law is what happens when ethics fails.
This is why Christ said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” which in the King James, I believe, even mentioned “neither a jot nor a tittle,” but he also then said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 NIV). This is The Golden Rule, and it’s well known that the concept existed for several centuries before Christ.
But there is a problem with the first ethical system, The Law, in that, if you don’t believe in the reasoning behind the laws, or you fail to recognize the authority behind them, they don’t apply to you unless someone enforces them. And of course, the laundry list of laws gets ridiculously long pretty quickly, and very specific, because anything that’s not expressly forbidden is assumed to be allowed.
The problem with the second system, the Golden Rule, is that it works great when we want an answer to a simple scenario, like “Is it OK to walk up and hit someone because you don’t like the way they look?,” but it just doesn’t handle the tough cases. In the case of a tough call like an abortion-rights issue, for instance, the Golden Rule tells me that in the case of the mother in danger of dying during delivery, we certainly shouldn’t risk the mother’s life, but it also tells me that we shouldn’t cut short the life of the fetus.
The other, really, really, sad outcome of the Golden Rule is that it fails if I can convince myself that someone else is so not like me that the Golden Rule doesn’t even apply, and this has happened repeatedly throughout the course of human history.
In more recent times, there have been several systems of Ethics proposed, but many, like Kant’s Categorical Imperative, again fall short of my goal. The Categorical Imperative states that no individual should consider doing anything that they wouldn’t think it OK for anyone or even everyone to do. Again, this is a good rule, and a good extension of the Golden Rule, and I’m not suggesting a return to situational ethics, but I can easily imagine scenarios where it’s of benefit to the greater good for a select few to “get away with” a few things for a little while. In other words, in hindsight, I think it was all right for the industrialists at the turn of the century to harness oil and coal to provide me with transportation and the computer that I’m writing this on by electric light, at the obvious expense to the environment and the workers, but now that we’ve done that successfully, it’s almost certainly wrong, in the context of oil wars and global warming, for millions of us to drive gas-guzzling SUVs, when cheaper, non-exotic solutions exist that get double to triple the mileage with fewer emissions. And our President knows that, and now it’s time to pay that debt.
So I propose a new system, with new rules, at least to me. I call it the Ethics of Long-Term Natural Consequences, and I think it makes sense of a lot of mixed-up rubbish, at least for me.
Here are the ground rules:
1. You don’t get to appeal to a higher power or assume that there is anything like an afterlife, reincarnation, or karmic retribution.
2. The preferred outcome of any human behavior is whatever results in the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.
3. Regardless of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, you assume that we will achieve the best possible outcome from whatever action you take or resist taking. In other words, although Murphy’s Law obtains in real life, in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, we assume that all potential for good will be fulfilled if allowed to proceed unimpeded in the fullness of time.
4. Every human being, in every situation, is completely free to choose their own behavior.
5. Every human action has consequences, and you reap what you sow.
6. Sometimes things just happen, so when luck doesn’t go your way, you take your lemons home.