An Accelerated Master’s Degree: Ethics in One Book

Topics: Ethics
Lamp in Hakone

Photo by Stuck in Customs

There have been plenty of books recently published on the concept of Deliberate Practice, which essentially says that it takes 10,000 hours of a certain kind of practice (called ‘deliberate’) to gain expertise in something.   It makes sense that the majority of what we want to learn in any discipline is going to be experiential (or gained through practice).  But in order to better understand our experiences, we want to have some kind of framework of what to expect.  We want to develop a theory structure.

Books are what give us this theory structure, and certainly the quality of the theory structure we begin with impacts the amount of deliberate practice we need to become an ‘expert.’  So it’s important to choose the right books, as they will provide the base infrastructure upon which we will layer our experiences.  We’re looking for books that concisely capture the overriding concepts of a particular discipline.

And in any discipline, at least one fairly well defined, there doesn’t need to be that many books to accomplish this.  I would generally say that 3 books or fewer, for each discipline, will give you a proper theory structure.

With that in mind, let’s look at Ethics… 

It’s best to start by stating the obvious: no amount of classroom work, exercises, or books can make someone ethical.  It’s a choice.  But as Ben Franklin said, it’s the best policy.  So approaching ethics from a practical standpoint can make just as much sense as approaching it from a moral standpoint.

The practical standpoint is what we all refer to as teleological (or Utilitarianism).  This is a Relative approach to ethics (a certain behavior may or may not be wrong depending on the circumstances).  The moral standpoint is what we all refer to as deontological (or Stoicism, to an extent).  This is an Absolute approach to ethics (a certain behavior is always right or always wrong).  Most of us will fall somewhere between these two extremes.

And although the single best way to teach ethics is by example, a good foundational framework can be found in Cicero On Duties.  A lot of the ethical thought we use today is in part thanks to Cicero’s ability to condense and clearly write on the topic 2,000 years ago.

Cicero outlines two systems of ethical philosophy: Utilitarianism and Stoicism.

  • The Utilitarian theory of morals makes virtue a means.  In other words, we are to practice virtue for the good that will come of it to ourselves and others.  This is often called the selfish theory of morals, as it makes the pursuit of our own happiness our duty.  Any and all adaptations to this end are the sole standard of what is ‘right.’  ‘Right,’ in this sense, changes according to circumstances, and has no real attributes that are uniquely its own.  This was the Epicurean of Cicero’s time.
    More recently, John Stuart Mill became the foremost publicist of this philosophy insisting that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends.”  Mill wrote “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of ethics of utility.  To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”  Simply put, Utilitarianism seeks to make everyone better off through maximizing the world’s total happiness.  The alternative would be unconditional compassion.  And in a world where no one gets punished, bad behavior will grow.
  • The Stoic theory of morals makes virtue an end.  In other words, we are to practice virtue for its own sake, for the intrinsic benefit it gives us, regardless of any ulterior consequences.  In this theory, ‘right’ has the same meaning regardless of circumstances, time, place, judgment, or any other external factor.  ‘Right’ is indelible.  What’s right is right.  Period.  This philosophy, from Cicero’s time till Christianity gained ascendency, is credited with preserving Roman Society from remediless corruption.

The middle ground (between Utilitarianism and Stoicism) was represented by the Peripatetics.  This is where Cicero found himself.  Peripatetics were a more practical group, believing that morality acts in accordance with probability: between two courses of action, pursue the one for which the more and better reasons can be given.  Cicero favored this group over the more rigid system of the Stoics, but he had great sympathy for Stoic thought.

Three waves of ethical thought preceded Cicero (106 B.C. – 43 B.C.).  The final one (Stoicism) heavily weighed on Cicero’s written work and beliefs.

  • Taoism (Lao Tzu, ~550 B.C.):  As far as we know, the principle of returning good for evil was first enunciated by Lao Tzu.  In other words, “turn the other cheek.” Confucius rejects this as vain idealism.
  • Confucianism (Confucius, ~500 B.C.):  The essence of Confucianism is the ubiquitous phrase “do unto others as we would have them do to us.”  In other words, the moral life consists in being true to oneself and good to one’s neighbor.  Understanding human nature, Confucius promoted positive thinking to maintain moral balance.  He believed the instincts of man are social and therefore fundamentally good.  So he stressed altruism, acting socially, and living for others in living for oneself.
  • Stoicism (Zeno, ~330 B.C.): Stoicism is about defining those things that we can control and those that we can’t, and only focusing on or caring about those things that we can control.  Naturally, this requires a deeper understanding and management of our emotions – specifically negative emotions.  The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotion. Seneca (~30 A.D.) advises us to rid ourselves of fear by limiting our desires, and Epictetus (~100 A.D.) advises us to rid ourselves of envy by taking happiness in not desiring things.  An inability to rid ourselves of fear and envy can result in the Disliking/Hating Tendency, which distorts our ability to see things clearly and make good decisions.  Ultimately, Stoicism is not so much concerned with right and wrong, but with living a good, happy life.  And this means developing reason at the expense of emotion.  As a byproduct, Stoics believed that what is right ought to be sought chiefly for its own sake.

It’s clear that humans have been pushing for some kind of moral code for a very long time.  Why?  The logical answer is that everyone’s happiness can, in principle, go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely.  You refrain from cheating or mistreating me, I refrain from cheating or mistreating you; we’re both better off than we would have been in a world without morality.  This is the idea of Virtue Effects, or the idea that good perpetuates good and vice versa.  In this kind of world, mutual mistreatment would probably cancel itself out, but we’d still be left with the added cost of fear.

A good system of ethics is really about supporting psychological health, and many religions are described at some level as ideologies of exactly that.  Psychological health is bolstered by friendship, affection, and trust.  These traits, long before people signed contracts, were what held human societies together.  Fear, avarice, and envy, on the other hand, were and still are what tear human societies apart.  Ethical frameworks (and religions) are often about ridding us of these as best as is reasonably possible.  Psychologically painful experiences can trigger a Simple, Pain-Avoiding Psychological Denial Tendency, in which the psychological pain is too great to bear.  A good system of ethics can help to alleviate this pain.  A poor system of ethics, on the other hand, may leave a person with the inability to deal with painful psychological experiences.  This may lead to chemical dependency.  In chemical dependency, morals usually break down horribly (Drug-Misinfluence Tendency), exacerbating the effects of an already poor ethical framework.

But after all the talk, the single best way to teach ethics is still by example.  Seeing someone you respect acting properly in a stressful situation will have far more impact than any formal teachings.  So Ethics is best learned Indirectly (through observing others) than Directly (through formal reading and lectures).