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Is ethics a memetic trap

I've read up (possibly superficially?) on many ethical systems or at least viewpoints on ethics. But it seems that, once you reach the sphere of actions I can actually undertake in my daily life, almost none of the prescriptive claims given or derived from these systems differ.

For the sake of argument, let's take a system like the existentialist ethics prescribed by de Beauvoir, an up to date version of Aristotelian teleology based ethics, Kant's deontological ethics, Singer's branch of value-of-life consequentialist ethics and some New England style Christian ethics.

If you take an extreme thought experiments, the kind where you ask something like:

Then you can argue ad-infinitum as to how the actions prescribed by the systems of ethics differ and I do believe they might differ. But we don’t live in thought experiments.

Applying these systems to the kind of choices that I make in everyday life I can see all of them basically saying something like:

• Well, I should take better care of my body... exercise more, don't drink coffee late at night, don't vape/smoke, eat healthy and in moderation, don't be awake at 4AM browsing reddit (etc)

• Be kinder to friends and family... spend more time thinking about who might be lonely during the quarantine and give them a call, visit more often.

• Donate more to projects and organizations that help the world (e.g. Wikipedia) and volunteer more of my time to said entities.

• I should try to be better at my work, research more, don't give up on hard problems so soon, be nicer to my coworkers, spend less time signaling about "the work I do" and more time "doing it". Even more, I should seek the kind of work that inspires me and that has a high potential for bringing new discoveries in fields I care about.

• I should avoid spurious hookups and seek a genuine and authentic human connection in my relationships and be less afraid of expressing interest and love in the people I like.

… etc, I hope you get the point. To some extent, if you boil down ethical systems to day to day actions you get the kind of boring platitude one sees on motivational posters.

It seems that most of the choices I have that might lead me to immoral actions are choices where I am fighting laziness and desire for things that I know to be insubstantial and ultimately vain and useless.

How to turn Hitler ethical

There's probably not a single mc-job working weed-smoking couch potato that thinks "Oh man, this is the life, God help those poor doctors helping people fend off the spread of parasites in Rowanda".

Most people that are in some way acting less ethically than they could, seem to be doing so due to the inner-workings of their mind and their present circumstance not giving them the power to do otherwise, not due to lacking some sort of philosophical grounding by which they can determine ethical value.

Even people who we would consider to be “inherently evil” would probably act very differently with just minor tweaks to their lifestyle and circumstances.

So, let’s say you have 5-minutes to chat up young Hitler and turn him into an ethical man… not anything saintly, just turn him from “genocidal madman national-socialist leader” to “a mediocre painter that makes antisemitic jokes and complains about lack of discipline in society when he gets too drunk”.

Well, even assuming we could get across the categorical imperative or the idea of forms having inherent purpose this wouldn’t necessarily convince him to abandon his way. Utilitarian Hitler and Christian Hitler will commit genocide just the same, Christian Hitler will use some excuse motivated by religion symbolism and purity, Utilitarian Hitler will use some excuse motivated by the greater good, Existentialist Hitler will use a line about the Ubermensch… but they will be excuses just the same, they will be facades over the real problem which is a deep-seated antisemitism born out of years of repressed resentment in need of a scapegoat and a social environment that encourages and feeds off that emotion.

So how do you stop that from happening ?

Well, I think a good bet would be telling young Hitler something like:

Hey man, I saw that painting of yours and it’s quite nice, but you need to get a bit more creative, start putting some style into it… even if it feels “cliché” or “fake” to be with. Also, fuck university professors, they don’t know how to tell good from bad art more than any other man, keep at it, if one university rejects you, apply to 10 more, if all 10 reject you, go showcase your craft in the streets of Vienna.

… Or something like that.

The point here is that the problem with Hitler and most other horrible people doesn’t stem from their ethics, barring people like Temüjin Borjigin, most genocidal monsters had a pretty well-developed system of ethics. The popes could write a book about why the Crusades were right and moral. The 9/11 terrorists could write a book about why their actions were ethical. The nazi leaders or the CCP ministers could (and did) write whole books from diverse angles and systems of ethics about why murder dozens of millions of people in sadistic ways was the most ethical thing to do.

The problem stems from the factors that build up anger, resentment, misinformation and lack of alternatives that lead one to take the unethical actions to being with.


Going even further, one could argue there's not enough willpower to do all the things which would lead to a more ethical life, but in that case, I fail to see any way of "ranking" the things I could focus on as stemming from a system of ethics.

Let's say I wanted to rank between day to day actions that will "help me become a better moral agent". Say I'm choosing between exercising, doing research in a field I like, volunteering at a homeless shelter and writing code for open source projects I think are useful.

I go to de Beauvoir with that question I'd get an answer like: "Well, we are all free to pursue our authentic self, so considering all those actions seem like good things, choose whichever you feel like you really want, try to look past social prescriptions and think what would 20 years older you think"

I go to Aristotle and I get something like: "Well, all those actions seem like good undertakings but at the end of the day every man's purpose in the world is different, do whatever action suits you best based on the kind of man you want to be, whatever you know deep inside to be suited to your telos"

I go to Bentham with the question and I get something like: "Well, all those actions could lead to some utility for you and others, I guess the choice is up to you to do that calculus and figure out which will work best in the long run and if there's no clear winner, just do whatever would make you happiest right now, after all, maximizing utility applies to you in the moment as well"

I got to Jesus with that question and I get something like: “Well, I guess the bible says love thy neighbor, but really, it was written like 1800 years ago and back then the scientific method and computers weren’t a thing, so in a way those contributions are also indirect ways of helping your fellow humans, so, ahem, yeah, whatever dude, all of those seem fine as long as you remember to prioritize your daily prayer to daddy”.

I go to Kant with that question and I get something like: "Well, no matter what choice you make, if all men were to make that choice the world would surely be a better place, I see nothing here that violates my categorical imperative, so I guess just do whatever you like best. If all people were to select to pursue virtuous things which they enjoy that would lead to a better world, so you should pursue the virtuous thing which you like best"

... etc, hopefully, you get my point.

There are countless actions that we do every moment which would be considered "ethical" since they put us closer to a position from which we can better pursue and act rightfully in those few "important" cases.

But as far as the countless everyday actions which end up deciding our overall behavior the problem really boils down to willpower and our choice in distributing said willpower.

It seems that, maybe, the one thing a system of ethics could do is tell people how to best spend their limited willpower, but even there it seems that most systems of ethics would come up short since they to some extent rely on knowing the consequences of an action (even in the case of a normative system, since the kind of everyday actions we take usually lack normative value unless you aggregate them over a long period... at which point you are looking at their consequences).

So from that perspective, wouldn't the study of ethics boil down to something that's in itself ethically neutral or even unethical. In that, it would only lead to more rationalizing of our natural drives to take the easy route and procrastinate as "indecision paralysis" or "pondering between choices" when in 99.999% of cases we know what the "correct" action would be, we just lack the willpower to make it consistently.

In Conclusion

  1. Most actions lack direct ethical value, but taking them does amount to something of ethical value, however, this might not be obvious. Even when it is obvious, taking the actions that lead to good outcomes is usually inherently difficult. Ethical systems hold no obvious solution for figuring out how actions add up over time, or for overcoming mental barriers to provide us with more willpower.

  2. The day to day actions that do have some ethical value associated with them, don’t differ in terms of direction between any given ethical system (e.g.. no matter how you splice it, kicking a puppy is unethical and helping an old lady cross the street is ethical). If they do differ in magnitude (e.g. if it is quantifiably better to help an old lady cross the street than to help an old lady reach the top shelf), I fail to see a way of ranking actions as being provided by most popular systems of ethics.

  3. There are easy ways to being a better moral agent, but to do that, you should probably maximize the time you spend taking care of yourself, taking care of others, volunteering, or working towards important issues… rather than reading Kant.

Thus I’ve come to think of ethic partially as a sort of “memetic tap”, it intuitively seems that reading about ethics will help you act more ethically, but the more I’ve read about ethics, the more I’ve realized is just a form of procrastination that conveniently enough can rationalize as “doing something morally good”.

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Published on: 2020-04-13



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