Morality and Ethics

I’d like to know what everyone’s thoughts are on morality and ethics. Specifically, what does it mean to be “moral” or “ethical” to you? On what do you base your morals and ethics? Do you still hold the same morals and ethics as you were raised with? If not, what changed and why? Why do you think that your morals and ethics are pretty good? What do “good” and “bad” mean to you from a high-level moral/ethical point of view?

I’d like to avoid flames coming up about people who are not moral or ethical and so I hereby request “current events in politics” stay out of the thread. :) Although if an example is needed to calrify a grey area or anecdotal point that’s OK. Religion is OK in a post as the means by which you have your thoughts on morality and ethics, but I’d like to not focus on the religious aspect per se.

Fight for what is yours, never take what isn’t.

A simple concept, common to any number of ethical, moral and belief systems throughout history; the ethic of reciprocity, often known in the west as the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

Entire books have been written on this topic, and not just because the authors have been guilty of Koontzian verbosity. (Although some have) Almost any ethical system that could be boiled down into a single post will be inadequate as an ethical system. The Golden Rule, for example, is woefully inadequate because it assumes that others have somewhat similar values to you, which is obviously false. (No offense meant to BrewersDroop… I’m just pretty sure that a lot of people will list the Golden Rule as their system of ethics.)

An aspect of morality that I think is very important which is rarely considered is that of epistemological responsibility. That is, it’s your moral responsibility to remain well informed on major current events and trends of thought, and you should have well thought out beliefs on basic ethical questions. I know shift6 specifically requested that we keep current events out of this as much as possible, but I believe that Mr. Bush is a good example of lack of epistemological responsibility. I’ve heard many people say that Bush is kinda dumb, but it’s those around Bush that are truly evil. (Let’s assume for the moment that the Liberals are right and the Bush administration actually is evil.) I think that Bush’s refusal to inform himself or think (he won’t even read the newspapers, for example, and his refusal to consider complex counterarguments is well acknowledged, even by Conservatives.) is a prime example of someone who fails to live up to his epistemological responsibility.

Not to be too anal, but reciprocity isn’t the same as the golden rule. Reciprocity holds that you treat others as they have treated you, good or bad. A slight but important difference, as the reciprocity rule often deters people from competing with or harming others, while the Golden Rule wouldn’t unless everyone’s following it.

And personally, I think reciprocity has shaped human civilization MUCH more than just about anything. It’s the foundation of all cooperation.

^^ pretty much.

Ethics and Morals are both entirely subjective internal systems that we use to get along in society. Those that fall too outside the mainstream will wind up conflicting with society and will be punished. There is enough wiggle room in most societies to allow people to be eccentric as long as they aren’t too harmful to those around them.

On a slightly related tangent, I wish the Government would repeal legislation that criminalizes behaviour which can only be seen as detrimental to the person doing them. Drug laws are one of the biggest examples, they don’t make any sense.

Let’s make a deal!

Everything I feel about morality and ethics comes from the film Election.

“Jim, I don’t need a lecture on ethics.”
“I’m not talking about ethics, I’m talking about morals.”
“What’s the difference?”


To me ethical people are the one’s who can figure out what they desire and achieve that instead of constructing and elaborate mythology around failure and protecting it all costs.

I don’t know that you could call ethics subjective, exactly. I mean, it sort of is, because you’re dealing with ideas and ideals and not ‘stuff’ - but ethics is more like the search (futile or not) for an objective foundation of morality (ie. one that’s going to apply to everyone no matter what).

I tried to articulate my opinion in this post, but I found it very difficult so I’m going to go away and think about it some more. There are so many ifs and buts that it’s basically impossible to make it seem elegant and simple. I do have definite opinions, it’s just a matter of expressing them the way I think they need to be expressed.

By your definition a car thief is ethical. He sees a car he wants. He steals it. He’s obviously an achiever. :roll:

Like BD, my prime ethical directive is the Golden Rule:

“What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.” - Judaism

“Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” - Buddhism

“This is the sum of all true righteousness…Treat others, as thou wouldst thyself be treated. Do nothing to thy neighbor, which hereafter Thou wouldst not have thy neighbor do to thee.” - Hinduism

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this is the law and the prophets.” - Christianity

“Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.” - Islam

There are exceptions, but rules are meant for them ;).

I also try to empathise with everyone; put myself in their shoes and try and imagine how they see the world. It makes for a much deeper understanding of life, and a much greater respect for people, even those who greatly annoy me.

I think that’s about right, Tim. But more than behaving this way just because it’s ‘moral’ it’s also the most effective behavior. If I’m going to understand an issue to the point I feel that I can defend my positions, for example, that means trying to understand not only the message of my opponents but the messenger’s motives as well. A natural tendency is to just hipshoot out fast, snappy, and biting responses when challenged but in the long run that just undermines your own credibility and would never change any minds (assuming that’s a real goal). Understanding where someone’s coming from, along with verifying their reasoning and facts, can give you hints as to how to appeal to them if you have the patience and, admittedly, I don’t always. Even more importantly, it gives you pause to reflect on whether or not they might actually be right.

One small facet of a very, very, big question but ties in a bit to P&R these days.

The Golden Rule is all fine and well, but it still relies heavily on how well the rest of the society you participate in executes on it. If the folks around you are having a hard time adhering to it, you’re going to have a likewise difficult time following it ere you get entirely shat upon.

Therefore, it behooves a good citizen to go above and beyond JUST the Golden Rule and set examples, and to be the sort of activistic pain in the ass needed to remind everyone that “hey, you’re hurting other folks for selfish reasons and that behavior could easily turn on you.” The idea that you only need to look out for yourself is badly interpreted by many people; in order to look out for yourself, you really need to look out for others as well.

There was an interesting experiment done some years ago on the implementation of the golden rule in an altruistic society. It was aimed at finding out which strategy was the best when dealing with other people: a selfish or altruistic one. Many people would likely think that a selfish attitude would work best for people, as a general rule, but the experiments came to a very different conclusion. The experiment was a computer simulation of a population of people, where everyone interacted with each other on the basis of a trade arrangement similar to the classic “prisoner dilemma”.

The prisoner dilemma has two suspects facing questioning in separate cells, not knowing what the other suspect is saying. The offer to both of them is: rat out the other guy and you go free while the other guy goes down for life. There is a catch, though, if both suspects rat each other out, then they both get life too, but if they both keep quiet, they only get a short term prison sentence. Obviously the best outcome is to rat out the other guy, while he stays quiet, which is the purely selfish option. For a one off that may work, but when you feed back the results into a community situation, the results are very different.

Initial testing of the simulation found that purely selfish and purely altruistic program populations running in the simulation would swing back and forth, as each one gained dominance. At first, the altruistic programs would win the advantage, with altruistic helping each other to gain an advantage over the selfish. However, once the selfish became a minority, they had so many altruistic programs to take advantage of they flourished until they became the majority. Once again the population would swing back, as the selfish programs destroyed each other.

They ran a competition, to find out which program’s strategy could win in this simulation. Programmers from all over the world submitted a variety of complex strategies, some honest, some cheats, to try and gain the most from the simulation. The programs were allowed to have a memory, whereby they could remember who cheated them, and this made a distinct difference to the success of cheaters, because most programs would have stringent strategies on those that cheated them. Despite all the fantastic strategies on offer, the winner proved to be a very simple algorithm: a program called “tit for tat”.

The tit for tat program behaved exactly as you would imagine. It’s opening gambit in the prisoner dilemma trade was honest. Whatever the response of the other program was, it would remember and do to them whatever they did to it. That meant that if it met another honest program, they would both benefit greatly, but any cheats would be quickly weeded out. There was a problem, however, and that was it could get into an endless cycle of retaliation with other programs that were generally very honest, but made “random” cheats or had opening gambits that were cheats. This proved very damaging to both parties.

So for the next competition the same programmers devised “tit for two tats”, which allowed the other programs two chances before it retaliated. This program stormed the competion, and won even more convincingly than before. This strategy is also one that I generally apply to real life, and I will usually forgive the other person at least two indiscretions before I break the Golden Rule and do unto them what they did to me. It might sound a little petty, but it works surprisingly well, with work collegues, with students I am teaching, and especially with forums where people can’t see your face to see it smile, and often assume you mean ill.

What Tim said. :)

If you’re looking for reciprocity (a.k.a., Tit for Tat) as a model for rational decision-making, just remember this: it matters whether you expect to interact with the same person again. If not, selfish strategies win out because they are, by definition, the most rational choices. But if you expect additional interactions, tit for tat is the winner.

Interestingly, when experimenters had players never meet face-to-face, the same patterns of behaviors persisted. So one could extend this kind of thing to interactions online with people that you will never meet otherwise.

The problem with basing ethics on reciprocity like this is that you do not take into account power and resources. In the prisoners dilemma, the prisoners’ power over eachother is equal. That is generally not the case in reality. If my boss is an asshole his power to hurt me is far greater than my power to hurt him, so the rational choice, up to a certain point, would be to keep quiet and take the abuse.

[size=2]edited for spelling[/size]

Anax: your analogy to GWB was fine. I was intending for this to not degenerate into a politics bitchfest, but using generalities as you did is all good.

Tim: awesome story about “tit for two tats”. I hadn’t heard of that experiment/model.

I’m also interested in where people picked up their morals/ethics? Ingrained by parents? Rebellion against parents? Relgion? A friend or clique? etc. I mean you people.

For me, I grew up in a non-denominational Protestant family. We didn’t walk around saying “Praise Jesus” all the time and handing out leaflets and listening to Christian radio and such, but Christianity was essentially a main focus in our lives. So I grew up with ethics which could loosely be called “The Golden Rule”, but I also believe that there is an absolute standard for morality, and that humans (because of sin) are not capable of meeting that standard (God’s standard). So my personal morals and ethics are what you may call New Testament Christianity (did I just coin a useful phrase? hehe). Do unto others, walk as Jesus did, no murdering heathens and gays, etc.

Incidently I didn’t post all this in the opener to the thread because I didn’t want people to not join in thinking it was designed to be religion-centric.

Well, let’s see:

  1. I was a pretty unpopular kid.
  2. I went through a very religious phase around 6th grade (in hindsight using the vindicative aspects of Southern Baptist christianity to try to get some justice).
  3. I could only put up with the cognitive dissonance intellectually for so long, though.
  4. The utopian boil-the-ocean idealism was still pretty cool, though.
  5. I guess my parents established cultural guidelines (don’t steal, don’t lie, no one ever yells at each other or acts sleazy), but those were more line items than a real decision-making framework.

19th century midwestern christians were socialist for a reason. Shame that’s fallen out of favor.

Of course I’m a horrible gossip who tries to figure out people’s archetypes and to sort people into “trust” and “don’t trust” categories, but I don’t treat them as permanent, really.

I’m not certain what my set of morals is exactly, since whenever I try to define my own morals I cannot bring it all together without running into logical inconsistencies. I’ve read much on the matter of ethics in the last two years, but if anything I have less answers and more questions now than I did when I started out.

And where they all came from, I have no good single answer there either. There is no single influence, it is all a mix of upbringing, immersion into the values of society at large, and my own questioning of my values.