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Chapter 1 - Well Being

To live ethically, make moral choices based on your overall well-being; when another person is involved, temper that with empathy.

This is the basis of many ethical systems. The differences between these systems arise from how people define well-being and how they apply empathy. Most people begin with the ethical system of their parents - usually a system that is prevalent in the society at large. As time goes on, the system is modified by the person by the selection of variations in the original system or by the inclusion of ideas from other systems. Some people reject all given systems outright and try to start afresh. But we all give meaning to our lives in a way that makes our well-being as unique as our own identity. Likewise, each person is different in how much capacity they have for empathy and how they express it. Therefore, the meaning of these terms can be so different that the question arises whether there is an absolute sense of moral action or not.

Before we go further, I have to define my terms.

Morality is the study of appropriate behavior this is usually phrased in terms of what actions are good or bad.

Ethics are the practical aspects of morality. So to live ethically means that one is living by a moral code.

A choice is an action that can be good or bad, depending on the well-being of those affected by that choice.

A moral choice is a volitional decision whose primary aspect under determination is the goodness or badness of that choice.

Volition is the act of willing, choosing or deciding in a conscious manner. Volition requires judgment.

A moral code is a set of rules that help a person to make moral choices.

These definitions are open-ended: they are not given here as precise terms with an absolute meaning. The words "morality" and "ethics" are defined in terms of other words such as good and bad, that themselves need defining. The whole matter of definitions needs to be discussed in detail, but this will be done in a later chapter. What I shall do until then is to use the terms and definitions with sufficient rigor to make the analysis of morality possible, without bogging down in what are essentially technical details. But I shall appeal to the reader's intuition as the arbiter of ambiguity and source of detail.

Although actions are sometimes termed right or wrong in terms of their appropriateness, I will tend to use the terms good and bad. Note that there can be many good choices that cannot be considered moral choices by my definitions. Moral choices require a consciousness.

Also, if the characteristic of efficacy of action is being considered, good and bad can be considered to be equivalent to being effective or ineffective. Of course the final outcome of an action is only one aspect, although probably important one. Therefore good and effectiveness are not equivalent concepts.

So I began by saying that morality is based on well-being. Other moral systems are based on a principle of acting on the right motivations. Usually these motivations are the attempt to realize through one's actions some set of ideal principles. But even with this as a starting point for acting, the effect of these actions, if done in a moral manner, is to increase the well-being of individuals, societies and other entities. Therefore, although these actions can be specified in terms of the motivating principles, they can be analyzed and judged in terms of their well-being.

There have been other standards of morality that seemingly form a different basis. For example, morality has been defined as being imposed from above, such as from a god who oversees the universe. The moral code in this case is usually revealed to those expected to follow it through some supernatural event that is recorded for posterity. This type of morality may contain rules that are to be followed regardless of the well-being of the individual. It is usually implied, though, that the rules are for either the well-being of that god, or the well-being of the universe - or both. It is also implied that these rules are for the well-being of the individual that follows them, even sometimes when this is not apparent.

Morality has also been defined by what is good for society as a whole - to consider the most good for the most people. A moral code based on society's needs is usually not exclusive - that is, it is not expected that the good of society is the only determinant of the good. Instead, this is usually a part of a moral code that also contains a set of rules that determine what is good for the individual alone.

I claim that any of these cases is also a form of well-being. The difference is that the context in which well-being is defined is larger. Both of these cases consider the well-being of the individual, but define some entity that is something larger than the individual and shift the focus of the determination of well-being outward to that larger entity. A metaphor for this shift can be seen when we consider that the well-being of the individual is greater than the well-being of the cells that make up the individual's body. An individual bacterium has only its own well-being at stake. But an individual cell gives up having only its own well-being as the basis of the goodness or badness of an action when it ceases being a cell all on its own and throws in its lot with cells that form a larger organism. Well-being is then defined over all of the cells in the body. Therefore, it is good to amputate a leg that is caught in a car wreck if that saves the body, even though the cells of the leg were lost. Typically, what is good for the body is good for the cell. But the human body lives each day with cells sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

But even though there may be a difference in the definition of well-being between the parts and the whole, a morality based on well-being must be a morality that is relative to the person, either as an individual entity or as the parts that make up the whole. So, to make a good choice, something must positively affect the well-being of a person. The question is at what level of organization the well-being applies to. There is certainly the well-being of the individual cells in the body. Most well-being preserves the basic life-force that is within each of our cells. But there are cases, such as the example of the loss of a leg, when the well-being of certain cells must be sacrificed for the well-being of the person. It can sometimes happen the other way - that the well-being of the organism as a whole must be sacrificed for the well-being of some or all of the parts. If the body is sick and needs to recover, this can mean a forced retirement until the healing process is completed, an action that may not be in the interests of the person as a person, but necessary for the person as a body.

Similarly, it happens that the well-being of the individual is set aside to maintain the well-being of the community. Sometimes it happens that the well-being of a whole community has been ignored in the interests of the state, which is an even larger community. It can even be argued that in some ways the well-being of all humanity can take second place to the well-being of Gaia, the ecosystem we are a part of. There is a whole hierarchy of entities, of parts and wholes, where the concept of person is centered at a particular place up the hierarchy. But there is a similar concept of personhood, a wholeness that consists of a complex of parts at that particular level.

This leads to a second set of definitions

An entity is something that exists as a particular and discrete unit, having the property of well-being.

A person or an individual is an entity capable of taking volitional action in pursuit of its own well-being.

A community or complex is a collection of entities or persons.

Well-being is quantized by saying an entity is faring well or doing poorly based on good and bad actions, regardless of where they were moral actions or not. The terms virtue, vice or evil shall be reserved for morality; that is, I shall not assume and entity is evil just because it makes bad decisions.

If an individual acts in a manner to make the well-being of the entities affected by the action better, then the actor is said to be doing good. If the overall well-being is reduced, the actor is doing bad. Actually, it is most often the case that an action is considered good only if the well-being of all of the entities is improved. It can happen that a bad act is one in which many entities improve their well-being at the expense of one.

These definitions make a technical distinction that there are objects that are constituted in such a way that they have the property of well-being inherent in them, but they themselves are incapable of taking actions as an individual in support of this well-being. An example of this is a desert ecosystem where the conservation of water is necessary to the maintenance of the ecosystem, but the desert itself cannot be considered to volitionally act to preserve itself. This is an entity that is not considered a person.

A person is defined in a way analogous to the legal sense of a person. A legal person can be a corporation that is considered to act as a corporation in a way that establishes and preserves legal rights and duties that go beyond the legal rights and duties of the people who are part of the corporation. For the moral use of the term, a country can be considered a person also.

Is it possible for a machine to be considered to make a moral choice, such at an engine that turns itself off to avoid overheating? This may be a moral entity in the sense that there is a definition of well-being for the engine that includes not running while being overheated, but the problem is whether the machine is really acting volitionally or not. A moral action is considered to be volitional, in a way that leads one to describe the person as having free will. An electrical generator with a temperature shut off cannot be considered to have free will in any reasonable sense of the term, so consequently it is an entity, not a person.

I shall consider it perfectly reasonable for animals to make moral choices based on standards of well-being defined in terms of those animals and their own sense or capacity for empathy, even those may be different or more limited than what a human is capable of. Although the ability to make a willful choice is not at the same level as what an average human is capable of, there is a sense of volition that can be applied to animals when discussing morality from a more inclusive perspective than is common. That is, there is no hard and fast dividing line that serves to separate the ability to make willful choices of the more advanced animals from that of the more limited humans. Morality must be discussed in terms of the normative behaviors of the collection of individuals under discussion. Although it is absurd to accuse a lion who kills a man of murder in a court of law, it could be meaningful to discuss morality of a lion who kills another lion in terms of the effect this has on the well-being of the pride of lions this individual is a member of, if it can be ascertained that the individual willfully made the choice to act.

To attempt to prove that well-being is the measure of morality, I would need to show that any other standard is just a special case of this generalized utilitarianism. In essence, this would mean that phrasing the definition of ethics in terms of well-being is universal, if the definition of well-being is broad enough. This seems to be a reasonable proposition. In effect, it is claiming that the notion of well-being has the essential property of being the result of good actions and that all good actions must bring about the well-being to at least one entity. If, starting from our intuitive notion of well-being, we show its identity as what is good to be tautological then we can consider well-being to be an axiom of morality.

This identity does not mean that what is good cannot have other universal properties besides the establishment of well-being. These other properties may be helpful for a richer understanding of morality. But well-being may be both necessary and sufficient for an essential understanding. If the equivalence of the two concepts is tautological, the establishment of a sense of well-being may be sufficient to establish the existence of what is good. Other properties may not be necessary.

I claim that it is not possible to find a case where some action is said to be good but there is no entity whose well-being is not positively changed. For example, the concept of delayed gratification is expressed in terms of the well-being it affords the individual in the long run, even though this is not obvious in the near term. Charity towards a stranger includes the good feelings that arise from the action for the giver besides the increased well-being for the recipient. Even if it is admitted that no increase in well-being will accrue to the giver directly, the increased well-being of society improves the well-being of the giver who is part of that society. If this is not enough, the well-being of being part of God's plan can also be invoked. For that matter, anything that is good in God's eyes improves the well-being of God or the universe - there is no case where some good act diminishes God or the universe.

So, even though I could go on citing examples of how the concepts of goodness and well-being relate to one another, unfortunately, this relation cannot be proven. Even if every action that we conceive of results in the improved well-being of some entity, this does not mean that something that we currently cannot conceive of may not come along that would be considered good. We will have to take as a given that the improvement of well-being is equivalent to good. This principle is a thesis - a proposition to be accepted without proof.

Given that morality is defined in terms of well-being, there must be at least one entity whose well-being is in question. That is to say, some thing or action is never inherently good or bad.

The concept of well-being is not inherent in an object the way a physical property such as mass is, or in an action the way duration is. The mass of an object is the same for that object regardless of the environment the object is placed in and the mass of the various objects around it. But the morality of a slave owner in Biblical times, when slavery was a part of even the most advanced societies, is different from the morality of a slave-owner in the mid-1800's when most of the advanced societies had abolished the practice. It is instead a relationship between objects, or a consequence of actions of objects.

A physical property that is analogous to morality is friction. Friction comes from the interaction between two distinct objects, and the effect varies with the interactions of the different characteristics of the objects at the interface and the forces acting between them. There is also a difference in the friction between the objects if the two objects are just starting to move or have been sliding past each other for a while.

Just as friction is a function of the objects in contact with a given surface, morality is a function of the way objects are related to the entity whose well-being is under discussion. As an example, feeding a child is good, but feeding a child who is not hungry is not. This can actually be detrimental. A child who is not hungry but is force-fed can easily end up overweight, but also can suffer mentally from being forced to do something that is normally good in a bad way.

An all-encompassing entity from which to define goodness and badness is usually referred to as God. God may be considered in one of two ways, depending on whether God is considered to be all-encompassing or as a separate entity from God's creation. That is, goodness, as viewed by God has the properties of being omniscient and all-encompassing. The second view is that God is an entity whose interpretation of goodness is only one of many such definitions, and the other views of goodness compete for attention with this interpretation.

Assuming God is conscious, or is an entity composed of volitional persons, the first view means that goodness, as experienced by any entity is just one aspect of the universal goodness of God. This means that the definition of the goodness of God simultaneously takes into account the well-being of all entities that exist in the universe. The second view was probably in the mind of Jonah when he tried to run away from the duty that God had called him to.

Let us illustrate the difference using an example. Assume that a person whose kidneys have failed would have their life saved if another person donates a kidney. For almost all people who hold to the first view, it would be believed that God's universal goodness would be in accord with donating the organ, even though this act would put the donor at some risk, both during the operation and if the single kidney is lost. But the nature of universal goodness means that this higher goodness takes all lesser contexts into account, so the act of donating is truly good for the donor too, despite the risk.

The second view of God seems to limit the deity - to make God into some sort of minor player in the universe. But this is not necessarily the case. In the second view, it is not to the good of the donor to donate the kidney, if there is nothing to be gained for that person to offset the loss. But still, the donation would be good as seen from the viewpoint of the Universe, because the loss to one person is more than offset by the gain in well-being to the other. This second case views the good of the individual and God's goodness as separate but unequal valuations, just as my household budget is separate from my government's budget but certainly unequal. Even so, the two views of the good interact and affect each other, even as these two budgets are affected.

If God does not exist, or is believed to be indifferent to good or bad, then the ground of action devolves on some other sort of individual. But it is still true that well-being is the goal, even with an indifferent universe. The universal requirement of well-being means that a good action to be taken by the individual entity, whatever that individual is, promotes the good of that individual.

Presuming that there are some unifying principles in the universe, it still may be possible that there is some unifying principle for well-being that governs all entities. This principle can be postulated without having to consider the existence of a universal entity such God as a prerequisite for its existence. This principle can be assumed to exist, for example, in the same way that gravity exists in the universe; as a force that affects the behavior and interactions of different entities in the universe which can be observed and measured locally for the most part without having to analyze or take into consideration the existence of a universal entity that gives rise to this universal force.

Instead of a universal power though, morality can also be viewed as a universal phenomenon or epiphenomenon of action the same way that consciousness is considered in relation to cognition.

In either case, the concept of well-being would have universal properties that enable everyone to measure the effect of an action, the same way friction has universal properties that make it a predictable and measurable property of physical action. But even though there are presumed to be unifying principles that govern the universe such as the law of gravity, this does not of necessity mean that well-being is as universal. Morality can still be defined without assuming a unifying principle for well-being. This limited viewpoint would consider that any definition of well-being would apply only to actions of entities only on this earth, say, or as applicable of to that part of the universe that human beings can significantly affect through their actions. That means that with only a limited viewpoint, morality would have to be totally redefined for an alien race, for example.

But morality must have some universe of discourse where general statements can be made if any general statements can be made at all. This universe may be limited in extent, but within that extent, if two situations are established and it can be shown that the difference between the situations is negligible in the way it affects the well-being of the entities involved, then the same rules or morality would lead to the same conclusions.

No definitive statement will be made here on the existence of God one way or the other, nor on the characteristics of God if such an entity exists. The theories about morality and the practice of ethics laid forth here are applicable regardless of the particular viewpoint of the question of God that each individual holds. Note that this does not in any way mean that the morality and ethics of a Christian, a pantheist, an atheist or a Buddhist are in any way the same. The question of God being a question of universals gives a profoundly different quality to the aims, judgments and practices of those who differ in their viewpoint of God. But there are still important characteristics of morality and ethics that transcend the differences that people have in their vision of God.

As we have mentioned, besides the individual actor, society can also be an actor. Just as the human body is made up of cells, society is made up of people. The cells in the body each have their own individual activities and behavior, but the behavior of the body as a whole cannot be predicted from studying the actions of the individual cells.

This is an explicit denial of extreme reductionism. Reductionism is the attempt to explain the whole as the sum of its parts. An example is to explain the biology of living things in terms of their chemical processes, where chemistry is ultimately reduced to physics and physical processes are reduced to the interactions of subatomic particles and physical laws. This is an ontological reduction, where ontology deals with existence or being. A related form of reductionism is epistemological reductionism, where the explanation of the activity at one level is best expressed by reference to the parts further down in the ontological hierarchy. Epistemology refers to the nature and origins of knowledge.

Western culture is pervaded with the idea of reductionism. Everything from mathematics, which is considered to be reducible to logic and set theory, to cooking, where the special qualities of a dish are often described in terms of the spices. We don't consider very satisfying an explanation of how things come to be unless we are told how the parts interacted to make it so. Extreme reductionism holds that this is the one sure way to knowledge.

Whether or not extreme reductionism is a valid way of looking at the world will be discussed in a later chapter, but until then, I shall not consider reductionism as a necessary prerequisite to understanding. That is, the actions of society and its well-being will be described in some cases as characteristics of society as a whole apart from the actions and well-beings of the individuals in society.

One problem that extreme reductionism has is choosing a particular level at which discourse takes place. After all, a human being is made up of cells. Therefore, the moral judgments of a person's actions could be considered to be the aggregate of the moral judgment made by each neuron and cell involved in the action. The well-being of the individual cells, summed together, will then explain the actions of the person. But at the next level down, the morality of the cell is based on the morality of the individual proteins that form the basis of cellular activity. We can also go down to the molecular level and the atomic level. But this is an absurd situation.

This is as much a question of perspective as it is considering how to analyze the action of the whole in terms of the parts. After all, if one presumes materialism, then there is nothing else making up the body other than the individual cells and so on down to the physical particles. Extreme reductionism would say that there is nothing to be gained by talking about the actions of the aggregate when the actions are originated by the parts.

It is reasonable to say that the actions of society are made up of the individual actions of the people who make up the society. But it is both meaningful and helpful to consider the actions of the aggregate as an emergent behavior that does not occur at the individual level. Even if extreme reductionism were actually the case, the complex calculations involved to derive the societal properties from the individual actions of its citizens would make the whole process of discussing morality too complicated for any but the most trivial questions. Regardless of the truth of reductionism, we can arrive at a practical and more useful analysis by taking the individual, at whatever level, as the unit of discussion and considering the properties of society as emerging out of the nature of society or societies in a way that is above and beyond the properties of the individuals.

Moral action is an emergent behavior of the aggregate of parts that make up the individual. Emergent behavior means that a set of actions manifest themselves in an entity defined at a certain level of complexity, but will not be explained by reducing the entity into its constituent parts. It is not that we cannot give this explanation; we will not make this explanation if we are reasonably sure that this effort will not yield any deeper level of understanding. It is sometimes possible to judge the actions of individual cells as good or bad. For example, cell death is good, although not for the well-being of the individual cell. For another example, cancer is bad thing for a cell to do in terms of the person, although it is in the well-being of the individual cancer cell. But how meaningful this judgment is can actually be considered to be moot because free will is not involved.

At the other extreme there are certain good or bad actions that apply to whole ecosystems. One might ask if a choice results in the destruction of the whole habitat of an organism, has a moral choice been made? Since the well-being of the whole species is affected, certainly, even though this may not affect any person's well-being. For example, it is possible to destroy every last smallpox virus on earth. People currently know enough about genetics and probably enough about biology to reconstruct an existing smallpox virus. Due to the effect that smallpox has on people the destruction of the virus would definitely increase the well-being of humans. But in terms of the ecosystem, it could be argued that this destruction reduces the biological variability of the ecosystem as a whole, and therefore its well-being is negatively affected.

Therefore, the discussion of morality and ethics given here is framed in terms of well-being as the single unifying principle that serves to unify the discussion of morality. This is itself a reductionist statement. Any entity that can consciously act on behalf of its own well-being or the well-being of others is a moral agent, regardless of whether the entity is human, animal, society or some universal principle such as God. Any entity whose well-being is at stake and can be affected by the actions of itself and others can be the recipient of moral actions. The universal ground of morality is free to be believed or interpreted in any of the different ways that humans have been known to believe, as long as the recognition is given that these views are individual views of the nature of the well-being of God or whatever universal property that substitutes for God. Finally, although the reduction of morality to well-being is a reductionist statement, it is not extreme in its reductionism, because the well-being of each individual entity emerges out of the nature of the entity as a whole and not the well-being of its constituent parts.