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Ethics is inescapable. Everyday we act in ways that reflect our ethical judgements.

Peter Singer

  1. What ethics is about
  2. Impartiality and the well-being of others
  3. Geographical distance and scope insensitivity
  4. Making the world a better place
  5. Cost-effectiveness and prioritization
  6. The expanding circle of concern
  7. Dealing with great responsibility

What ethics is about

Ethics consists of reflection on one’s goals. Usually, it comes with a focus on goals that are other-regarding, where the interests or well-being of others, not just oneself, are taken into account. In this sense, ethics is thinking about what the perfect world looks like, in order to then try to make ours look more like it.

The question about our goals is the most fundamental question we can ask; it is what determines the reasons for everything else we strive to do. Whatever we do in our private lives, in our jobs, or in politics, it will always be an expression of what we think is good. Even doing whatever we want without further ethical considerations is an ethical view: it expresses the idea that everything is permitted and that the well-being of others is not valuable. Ethics can’t be avoided; it’s inescapable. This makes it all the more astonishing that we, in our private lives and in societal discourse, don’t devote more time to rigorously figuring out our goals and to clarifying what we want to achieve with our actions.

Impartiality and the well-being of others

A person who doesn’t care about the well-being of others might not be making any sort of objective mistake. Nevertheless, this radical position fortunately seems rare in humans. When confronted with someone who is suffering and in need of help, e.g. a child drowning in a pond nearby, most of us would want to step in to help the child. We would even be willing to give up resources in order to do so by willingly ruining our shoes and trousers. Are we doing this merely to avoid feeling guilty later? Would we choose to save our resources by taking a pill that removes any knowledge of the child, any guilt? Our unwillingness to take such a pill instead of actually saving the child illustrates that, at least to some extent, we care about others for their own sake. The impartial ethical perspective is attractive and can be a source of great personal meaning in life.

Geographical distance and scope insensitivity

When the victims of a catastrophe are far away from us rather than close, the “felt emotional urgency” of wanting to help is usually much weaker. Similarly, when it comes to numbers, the emotional response elicited by a single, identifiable victim tends to be stronger than the response to a large disaster where thousands of victims are affected. And a catastrophe where a million people suffer or die feels nowhere near a thousand times worse than one that affects a thousand people.

It only makes sense for us to rely on our moral intuitions where they are goal-tracking in regard to the things we care about. This is often not the case. In our ancestral environment where the core of our moral emotions evolved, our causal reach was very limited. Early hominids couldn’t travel to places far away and had no means to affect the well-being of larger groups. This has changed drastically: it is now possible for us to wire money to charities operating all across the world, and with the huge wealth differentials between countries, even comparatively low-earning people in developed countries can make a huge difference to the lives of the world’s poorest.

If we – upon reflection – conclude that two people suffering is twice as bad as one person suffering, or that a person suffering in Africa is equally bad as a person suffering in our home country, then it follows that our moral intuitions are often unreliable and that we should be prepared to fundamentally rethink the way we approach ethical issues.

Making the world a better place

Traditional morality has been preoccupied with “avoiding making the world worse”. A lot of people are thinking about ethical consumption nowadays, seeking out information and product-alternatives to reduce the harmful consequences of their lifestyle. These efforts are laudable and should continue. However, there is a crucial question hidden here: What is the relationship between avoiding harm and providing help? If the reason we avoid buying clothes made from child labor is because we care about the well-being of the children in question, then it should be secondary whether they suffer because of our choices, or whether this is the case because of the choices of others (or because of random misfortune). If we are primarily concerned about these children for their own sake, rather than being preoccupied with our personal “moral track-record”, we should be equally interested in actively providing help. And often, we find that we can prevent much more suffering by effective donations. The life of a hermit living in solitude might be the ideal for not making the world worse, but when it comes to making it better, it doesn’t actually change much.

Cost-effectiveness and prioritization

There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. Unfortunately, our resources are limited. Time and money spent on one project is time and money that is missing elsewhere.If all lives count for the same, then it follows directly that numbers and cost-effectiveness matter. It pays to invest time and money into figuring out where resources can do the most.

In the domain of poverty reduction, scientific charity evaluators have found that charitable interventions differ in cost-effectiveness by orders of magnitude. And yet, the biggest concern in traditional giving seems to be how high a percentage of the donations go to the overhead of a charity, rather than directly to the people who need help. This measure seems completely irrelevant.

Next to giving money to the best organization(s) for poverty reduction, there are other causes to consider and other ways to potentially make a huge positive difference. Cost-effectiveness reasoning can be applied to politics, for instance: Once we have clarified our goals, we can ask whether political activism is likely to bring us closer to them, or whether those resources, time, energy, and perhaps money, would be more efficiently spent in another way. The answer to this question should determine whether we pursue politics as a means to our ends. While political progress is more uncertain and harder to evaluate, the potential gains can be enormous in some cases, as only 50+% of the votes are needed to bring about large, systematic changes.

The expanding circle of concern

In the course of cultural evolution, humans have expanded their circle of moral concern – which presumably started out small, encompassing tribal units only – to mankind as a whole. Discrimination based on characteristics such as ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or ableness is far from completely overcome, but things have been improving: the societal norms are shifting towards the view that all humans count equally. Is this the end of the process? The historical difficulties in getting rid of various forms of discrimination speak for being cautious. And indeed, there is reason to assume that we have been missing the literal elephant in the room: non-human animals. There is considerable overlap in the cognitive abilities of humans and other animals. If we deny moral concern to individuals of other species on the grounds of them not meeting the right criteria, e.g. intelligence, ability to speak or the ability to reciprocate, then these very same criteria would also imply denying moral concern to a lot of humans, a result we would deem unacceptable. And if we deny moral concern to a being simply because she belongs to the “wrong” species, has the “wrong” DNA or the “wrong” number of legs, then this speciesism is just as arbitrary and unjust as discrimination based on ethnicity or sex.

The reason we care about other people is not because they share the same DNA –  people cared about other people before we even knew what DNA is. We care about others because we can imagine seeing the world from their perspective. A being can be harmed or benefited only if it has a “first-person-perspective”, i.e. if it is sentient. Sentientism is the view that moral relevance comes with the ability to experience suffering and joy. Likely not all animals are sentient, and perhaps not all animals are sentient to the same degree, but some are definitely capable of experiencing suffering, and their suffering counts regardless of their looks or species-membership. In the presence of empirical uncertainty about a being’s sentience, we should make our decisions with the best expected consequences in mind.

Given what we currently know about consciousness, we cannot rule out that some day, consciousness can be implemented digitally on computers in artificial minds. The same ethical arguments apply: it seems entirely accidental that all sentient life has been carbon-based so far. Due to the possibility of quick copying and the vast (and exponentially growing!) speed of computer technology, artificial consciousness has the potential to generate an enormous amount of minds. It is to be hoped that humans will not be indifferent to the fates of digital minds (if they indeed arise and turn out to be sentient). Finally, in similar spirit, future generations in general should fall within our circle of concern. The time at which harm happens does not affect how it is experienced. With great power comes great responsibility: the decisions we are making now will have long-lasting and perhaps even irreversible effects on the long-run future.

Dealing with great responsibility

Focusing on all the bad things in the world can be distressing. Scope insensitivity is both a curse and a blessing: If we were capable of truly understanding the scope of all the suffering on earth and its expected future, we couldn’t bear it. All we can do is get a tiny glimpse of it while trying to internalize accounting for our brain’s scope insensitivity. There are so many tragic issues: ALS, human trafficking, fur production, child labor, leukemia, malaria, depression… If we get rid of scope insensitivity, then every single one of these problems, including hundreds more, are worthy of dedicating a life towards. But no one can do everything. We have to prioritize. We might also need to reserve time and energy for personal, non-altruistic goals and not set our expectations too high. Ethics is not about external “duties”, but about our own goals and choices. Fortunately, for those who do – at least to some extent – care about others for their own sake, it is encouraging how much individuals can achieve with a rational approach to altruism. The ideas are spreading, which provides hope that enough people will start thinking about the biggest issues and global priorities for us to have a shot at getting things right.