First posted 17 Feb 2004. To be honest, I'm not really sure that I HAVE a moral code now, in a standard sense. I think that we all have moral (as opposed to practical - like let's all drive on the right hand side of the road so that we crash into one another) rules for the same reason that some of us have glasses and contact lens, because we don't see things clearly enough to operate without them.
I guess the way I think about it remains broadly consequentialist, but I probably lean more now to 'act' rather than 'rule' utilitarianism (see below). But I don't really think of it in terms of adding up the goods and the bads of every action. Just considering the impact as broadly as possible and acting with love in your heart, as if everyone/everything impacted were yourself.
Taking a fresh look in every moment and acting appropriately with current information is what is most important, so the 'Pragmatic' element is central to me now.
I believe that man writes his own moral code. No one else out there has written it for us. Having rejected God as a moral source, I also reject pure reason - in the sense that Kant meant it - because its realm is too narrow. Pure reason can help us reach desired ends, but it cannot define those ends. Emotion is central to defining objectives, including moral ones.
My approach is broadly consequentialist. If you can accept, as I do, that pain and death are generally bad and that life and well-being are generally good, then we can travel at least part of the road together. We may disagree eventually on matters of finer detail - does the well-being of non-humans count?, future generations?, prudes?, sadists? should we handle acts and omissions differently? - but let's not get wrapped up in that for now.
I have several problems with simple (or what might be called 'act') utilitarianism. First, it requires the accurate assessment of the effects that two or more alternative actions will have. Many effects will be unpredictable. Second, it requires that we be able to assess the mental state of others - will Mary be more happy in case A or case B? How do I know what Mary will feel, let alone the many others who will feel second- and third-order effects of my actions? The third point is not wholly distinct from the first two but bears highlighting, and that is the sheer volume, the enormity of the calculation required for every morally relevant decision. Life would grind to a halt.
My final issue with act utilitarianism is quite different. Irrespective of the difficulty of predicting objective effects, assessing subjective ones and somehow calculating it all with the appropriate weights, I fear that we can't really TRUST ourselves in the heat of the moment to do the sums honestly. In the midst of life's whirl, aren't we all too likely to 'queer the pitch', to 'fudge the sums', to 'bake the numbers' to make the calculation come out in favour of whatever course we want to follow? Even if this weren't likely to happen consciously, surely our tricky subconscious would jump in to 'guide' the process…
This collection of concerns leads me to see R.M. Hare's two-level utilitarian model as the best guide to practical ethics. I won't attempt to lay out Hare's argument but rather lay out my own explanation. Because of the problems I mentioned above, strict act utilitarianism is wholly impractical and potentially biased. In truth we all act according to intuitive, general rules most of the time. These rules could come from any source - tradition, self interest, religious belief - but I believe they should be based on accumulated experience and 'off-line' critical assessment of 'what-if' scenarios using an act-utilitarian framework. Because these calculations are not done in the heat of the moment and are smoothed over an 'average' of different situations, they are less susceptible to the problems I've outlined. This critical reasoning creates a system of rules, which guide the vast majority of our day-to-day decision making.
The rules are formed on consequentialist grounds, so this is often called rule utilitarianism. A system of rules or principles formed in this way guides my practical ethical thinking. There are, however, times when we should or need to revert to the critical (strict, act utilitarian) level. If two or more of my principles conflict, I need to resort to a more critical analysis (again, on consequentialist grounds) of which should take precedence. When I encounter a highly unusual situation that lies outside the realm of my experience and previous contemplation, for which my existing principles cannot be extrapolated, then I must return to the critical level. When there is a clear case of utility maximisation in which I am highly likely to be able to trust my own calculations and in which application of my intuitive rule would lead to a sub-optimal outcome, then I must revert to the critical level. Now, I am quite a conservative person, so I believe we should be VERY careful about that third point. We must not use it as a way to override our own rules for our own advantage. I personally think that application of this third exception should be very rare indeed.
Now, this whole method for practical ethics has a strong parallel with the process by which William James explains that we gain knowledge of any kind, the empirical and psychological process by which he says we access truth. I won't go into it further here, but it is worth pointing out that my ethical system is just a special application of a general method for attaining knowledge / identifying truth in a world in which (as far as we know) no objective and absolute truth exists. James's school of philosophy is called Pragmatism, and although (for all I know) my approach to practical ethics may be quite different from what he put forward, I think of my system as Pragmatic Ethics.
Pragmatic not in the cynical sense of conveniently justifying our selfish wants with ethical rationalisation, but rather in the sense that it allows for learning, for incorporating greater experience - not just 'real world' experience but also reflective experience via the thought experiments that test our ethical principles in a range of situations. Pragmatic Ethics allows for the ongoing incorporation of new information, for adjustment of the rules to encompass a growing range of situations, for continued honing to find as simple and elegant articulation as possible (but no simpler!).
This is the way that science advances. But in an important way, science is simpler than ethics. Science can advance for humanity on aggregate. Discoveries made by one person are tested by others, accepted as the best working model, and used by the entire field until disproven or supplanted by a more encompassing explanation. This is because science, at its purest, involves falsifiable hypotheses that can be repeatedly tested by different observers who carefully replicate the relevant conditions for the test.
Ethics is much more complex, if for no other reason than that it does not refer to an objective 'it' in the universe. So, although I am suggesting an approach that parallels the scientific approach in its openness to continuous 'improvement', I am certainly not suggesting that ethics can be reduced to science. Despite exactly that assertion from generations of great thinkers, I think the fact that no synthesis has coalesced over these millennia speaks for itself.