No matter the issue, every debate over ethical concerns can essentially be boiled down to one, basic question: What is the right thing to do?
Of course, that doesn’t really help to find an answer. But what it means is that, before we can ever hope to come to a conclusion and resolve the great issues debated today, we must understand the fundamental origins of the morality we hope to achieve. This is, obviously, a subject of much debate – how can we hope to comprehend something so intangible and all-encompassing as morality? But its difficulty notwithstanding, the pursuit of this knowledge lies at the heard of understanding how to act in an organized world.
Morality, in one form of another, has existed as long as there has been society. It has not, however, always been thought of as such. In the earliest times of human development, we may have seen sparing examples of what we might recognize as morality – helping the weak and sick, putting the needs of others and of the group ahead of your own – but it was unlikely they thought of their actions in those terms. More likely is an idea of a sort of instinctive societal self-preservation – morality as a tool to an end, that end being the supremacy of your race or your tribe rather than your person, rather than as a virtue in and of itself.
But eventually, human societies outgrew the basic morality of hearth and home, and a greater understanding of morality was required in order to prevent ever-larger human societies from collapsing into chaos. The solution to this, for many societies(if not all), was religion.
One’s belief as to the truth of religious ideas necessarily plays some role in their thoughts on religion’s role in morality, but there are a number of things that are difficult to dispute. Primarily, both sides can agree that a major function of religion was the imposition of an infallible moral order upon society, dictating without error exactly what is right and what is wrong. While the irreligious and the religious may differ on the ultimate source of this moral order – on whether it ultimately comes from the political aims of men or is truly the inspired word of the Lord – the true function of religious morality was to provide a universal set of ethics that would apply in all cases.
The rules set in in place by various religions dominated many societies, more or less, for thousands of years. To a degree, this stifled ethical development – because there was already an infallible doctrine of moral laws to follow, new ideas about right and wrong had to be contorted to fit within an existing structure. God couldn’t have simply forgotten about something, so for a long time any new ethical or moral ideas had to find a firm biblical basis – and were they contradictory, to the fires they went.
But gradually, society’s adherence to religion as the basis of all ethical decisions wore off, and society(by this point, you’ll have realized that I am primarily speaking of Western society here) was forced to do something it had rarely had to do before: decide on its own morality. There had always been debate on ethical subjects, of course – but this tended to serve as a part of wider theological debate. Now, ethical ideas were forced to stand on their merits alone, rather than resorting to God’s authority.
It is under this framework, though, that our understanding of ethical issues has reached its most convoluted. In addition to the ethical issues previous generations struggled with, we now have far more that could never have been predicted, ranging from genetic modification to the struggle between environmentalism and economic development to artificial fertilization to, eventually, the humanity of artificial machines. Without a moral power giving us all the answers, humanity may be lost and adrift in a sea of ethical dilemmas.
Under such a burden, we must now determine some framework and set of guidelines that can answer these questions. Unlike with Canada’s foreign investment rules, apparently, our development of moral issues will never be solved by a patchwork of approaches on a case-by-case basis – such a thing would invariably result in conflicting judgements and more confusion than before. But what form could this possibly take?
Some would simply characterize certain actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and declare the former always good and the latter always bad. Kraemer brings up, in his blog post, a common ethical issue: What about when killing some people would save the lives of even more people? Moral absolutists would tell you killing is always wrong, so doing such a thing would be evil. Yet is not the act of saving the first group then tantamount to killing the second? The only reasonable defense of such a thing would be to claim you cannot know for sure what the results of your actions will be either way – but this simply sidesteps the question of whether or not the action is right(surely in retrospect we can make a judgement), and at any rate, doesn’t bother to answer the question of where we come up with our original moral judgements in the first place.
From a human perspective, the only reasonable basis – barring religion, that is – for an original moral judgement is utilitarianism on a societal level. Something so intangible as ethics never truly has an answer, of course, but the closest we may come to the maximum development of our own sense of morality in fact must come, perhaps paradoxically, from a return to our collective instincts. As we have seen, those instincts do not simply lead to Hobbes’ characterization of life as nasty, brutish, and short. How could it, when it is these same instincts that led us to develop society and civilization? What comes instinctively is, oftentimes, the most moral choice of all.
Our pursuit of ethical ideas has always circled around the idea of what course of action has the best result. As Yasmeen pointed out, much of the debate around euthanasia revolves around whether or not the legalization of assisted voluntary suicide will lead to more assisted ‘involuntary’ suicide, because people would feel pressured to do it. This, however, is not the ethical question key to the debate. That question would be simply the acceptableness of suicide by those who wish it as a method to end suffering – a question easily resolved by a societal utilitarian framework, because ending suffering without causing harm naturally decreases the overall suffering of a society. The debate remains, however, as to whether actions taken for ethical reasons will actually do what was expected of them; if we legalize euthanasia not realizing its implications for involuntary suicide, the result would obviously not be what we based our ethical decision on. Fortunately, however, that is a debate for public policy analysts and not for ethicists.
That fundamental theorem – that the prime role of ethics is to provide for the betterment and strengthening of our society – has and likely always will dominate society, whether people know it or not. If robots achieve human-like sentience, and we begin debating what rights they will have, the important part of the debate will not be wither it is right to subjugate them, but whether or not we should view them as part of human society. If not, we will see our actions as irrelevant insofar as they do not harm us. If so, then as part of our society, their own betterment will stand just as important as our own. The end result is the same: ethics is the art of buttressing human civilization.
For all our accumulated wisdom and combined experience, humanity still remains a cluster of beings attempting to define what is right in a world that comes with no easy answers. The questions of morality will eternally exist, but if we ever wish to find some sort of an answer – one that will most of the time lead to the conclusions we tend to want to make, and that will provide for the enrichment of all – a human perspective of ethics for humans, by humans, is necessary. The biological and instinctive imperative of all humanity is, after all, the pursuit of its own supremacy. Better to admit that and strive to understand its implications than to eternally search in vain for an intrinsic label that isn’t really there.