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Describe a Maximally Ethical Person

 
 
sozobe
 
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 06:24 am
I was having a discussion with a friend about how I do think it's more ethical to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. But I think omnivorism is minimally ethical.

Some other more-ethical things I don't do:

- Give up my car entirely (though we have only one, and we walk/ bike a lot)
- Give up my comfortable-but-not-huge house and move into a space that's 500 sq feet or less
- Stop using electricity
- Generate zero garbage
- Wear a mask, Jain-style, to avoid inhaling and accidentally killing insects

Etc.

We were trying to figure out what a maximally-ethical person would be like. For example, is having children more or less ethical? On the one hand, it's a drain on resources -- on the other, the younger generation is needed to support the older generation.

So, how would you describe a maximally ethical person?
 
rosborne979
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 06:46 am
@sozobe,
Your examples of "ethical" seem to be focused on minimizing environmental impact. Aren't "ethics" a broader idea than that?

Are you asking for a maximally ethical person or a maximally "non invasive to the environment" person?

A maximally ethical person is probably just someone who believes whole-heartedly that they are doing the right thing, even though that may not agree with the ethics of other people.
Setanta
 
  6  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 06:55 am
Oooo . . . can of worms . . . this should be interesting.
0 Replies
 
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 07:29 am
@rosborne979,
rosborne wrote:
Your examples of "ethical" seem to be focused on minimizing environmental impact. Aren't "ethics" a broader idea than that?


Oh, definitely.

Those were just some of the first things I thought of -- not a complete list.

As it happens, many of them were environmental (except for the insect one, maybe), but I'm going for your OWN list.

Quote:
A maximally ethical person is probably just someone who believes whole-heartedly that they are doing the right thing, even though that may not agree with the ethics of other people.


I don't think I agree with that. It's pretty easy to argue that Hitler, for example, whole-heartedly believed he was doing the right thing. And even if you don't go the Hitler route, if a mentally ill person whole-heartedly believes that he is sending the people he kills to heaven and therefore is doing the right thing, it's still not ethical.
0 Replies
 
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 08:48 am
As a point of departure, here is the Wikipedia article on ethics. On the basis of their basic definition, with which i agree (more or less), Soz' comment about someone like Hitler or a mentally ill person are justified.

I am not entirely comfortable with the Hitler analogy, though. I consider that he was mentally ill, but i don't accept that any concept of morality ever entered into his decision-making process. In fact, it is the disjointed, incoherent nature of his decision-making, once he attained ultimate power in Germany, which leads me to say he was mentally ill. His decision-making in attaining that power is beyond reproach judged from an "ends justify the means" perspective. His sole talent was the exercise of practical, gutter politics. That made him completely incapable of understanding someone like Churchill, whose ultimate goal was not to acquire and exercise power for its own sake, but in order to accomplish his goal--which was at first to defend England, and then later, to defeat Hitler. This is not to say that i admire Churchill--i find that he had a heavy reliance on the concept that the end justifies the means, and was impatient of anything which baulked him in his course, or criticized that course.

All of which i consider relevant, because the sociopath is not acting out of any ethical motive--one could say that the sociopath is defined by his lack of a moral compass.
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 08:52 am
@Setanta,
That makes sense. That's part of why I moved on to a second example rather than hanging my point on Hitler -- I think it could be argued that he was doing what he believed was right (making Germany into a great country, etc.), but I agree that he was basically a nutcase.

Anyway, what are some specific traits you think a maximally ethical person would exhibit, Set?

I don't require an exhaustive list from everyone by the way -- it can be in bits and pieces.
Irishk
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 09:06 am
@sozobe,
Quote:
So, how would you describe a maximally ethical person?
One who lives in a hut made of peat, heated with acorn-fed fires and powered by a waterwheel.
Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 09:09 am
@sozobe,
Well, an ethical person (i'm not comfortable with the maximally adjective) is someone who always does right to best of his ability based on a recognized and justifiable moral system. By justifiable, i mean a system based on the principle "first, do no harm." I cannot accept the concept that an end can justify any means to accomplish it. The psychopath who kills in order to send people to heaven, for example, is not following a recognized and justifiable moral system, and the end does not justify the means, in that the psychopath's assumption is that the victim will go to heaven, from which it is not unreasonable to assume that said victim would go to heaven if he or she were not killed.
CalamityJane
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 09:20 am
Mother Theresa was a maximally ethical person in my book. She dedicated her life to help others in a complete selfless manner. I admire such traits - more so than doing away without electricity or other environmental amenities.

I've met some nuns in Tijuana who ran an orphanage there. They dedicated their lives to these children and I've seen their living quarters too: a very small room where only a twin bed would fit; a concrete floor, a small bathroom, electricity yes, but no heater; the closet for their own possessions was smaller than my broom closet. The nuns get up at 4 am and start cooking breakfast and get the kids ready for school and I am sure they won't go back to sleep before midnight.

To completely dedicate your life to helping others is a maximally ethical person. Living an ascetic, austere lifestyle not so - not in my book at least.
Fil Albuquerque
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 09:40 am
@CalamityJane,
Just a small adjustment regarding awareness...a maximally ethical person is also bounded by its ability to perceive the outcome of its actions once Ethics requires Consciousness as means of responsibility...(that is if we assume Ethics is on itself justified which I do for the argument sake in here)

In practical terms what this means is that the amount of good produced alone is not the solely factor for judging Ethical behaviour...the other factor being coherence or internal consistency between perception and action....
0 Replies
 
JLNobody
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 09:52 am
@sozobe,
How would I describe a maximally ethical person? The same way I would describe a minimally ethical person: by selecting individuals whose lives have violated or realized my most cherished values.
0 Replies
 
fresco
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 10:10 am
@CalamityJane,
There is some dispute over Mother Theresa since she was bound by the (negative) birth control policy of the Vatican. This raises the issue of whether ethics/morality can ever be deemed to be "universal". If not, then the adjective "maximally" has no significance.
failures art
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 10:52 am
@sozobe,
I think the maximal ethical person is less a list of things they do, but more about the idea that they factor the most into whatever is on their list.

e.g. - Your work commute is only viable by car, so you drive. You may use other forms of transit (bus, train, bike, or walking) for other commuting needs.

A
R
T
0 Replies
 
CalamityJane
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 11:03 am
@fresco,
You are absolutely right, fresco, which brings up the question of "universal" ethics. I happen to think that the Vatican's ethics are questionable, not only today but dating far back to the Roman Empire, the Spanish inquisition and
more recent the vehemently denied pedophile cases. In my view, Mother Theresa surpassed them all...

I think "maximally" is probably an unnecessary adjective here...yes.
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 11:12 am
@CalamityJane,
Great point about helping people being important.

I started with "maximally" and "minimally" because I felt the ethical vs. non-ethical distinction missed something.

This whole train of thought was started by the New York Times' essay contest, "Tell us why it's ethical to eat meat":

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/magazine/tell-us-why-its-ethical-to-eat-meat-a-contest.html

To me, the word "ethical" all by itself connotes a certain positive aspect. Something you should do, something you should aspire to. It's good to act ethically.

I wouldn't argue it's ethical to drive a car per se, (for example) I just think that it can be minimally ethical. I think it's more ethical to go without cars at all.

So the framing of the contest struck me as off.

My usage of maximally and minimally ethical is something like:

maximally unethical - minimally unethical - ethically neutral - minimally ethical - maximally ethical

Let's go ahead and give those numbers, with maximally unethical being a 1, and maximally ethical being a 5.

I'd consider murder a 1. Devoting one's life to helping people a 5. Eating meat and driving a car (as stand-alone attributes) somewhere around a 4.
engineer
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 11:29 am
@sozobe,
Just out of curiosity, why is eating meat in any way ethical or unethical? Is it ethical to kill meat eating predators (but not eat them) to save the lives of the prey? If you thin a herd of deer to prevent overgrazing and starvation, is it more ethical to toss the meat or feed it to the poor? I'm not sure I see the car issue either. Is it ethical to let someone die rather than put them in a car for a ride to the hospital? Is it ok to use a car to help someone get groceries? It seems like life is a series of tradeoffs and many aspects of life are neither inherently ethical or unethical, it depends on how they are used.
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 11:33 am
@engineer,
That's a good point, too. It's actually sort of aligned with what I describe above re: thinking that the NYT's question was not the correct framing.

Do you think it's all relative though? That no traits or actions are inherently ethical or unethical?
Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 12:04 pm
That's why i went looking for a "third party" source for ethics (third party in the sense of someone other than us). I don't see how cars can inherently be ethical or unethical. The use of them might be described as ethical or unethical. Car pooling might be described as "ethical" (a more efficient use of resources with a reduced environmental impact per passenger); drunken driving would obviously be unethical, or any other form of driving with a reckless disregard (that would include texting, reading the paper [yes, i seen that more than once], putting on your makeup using the rear view, etc).

Cars themselves, however, ought to be considered ethically neutral. The proliferation of the intenal combustion engine can even be seen as ethically preferable, because the eventual elimination of manure from streets dramatically reduced the incidence and prevelance of disease, and especially reduced child mortality levels. The elimination of urban livery stables dramatically reduced the incidence and prevelance of tuberculosis. With that in mind, returning to the horse would be "ethically" insupportable. All such considerations are very complicated--for example, the contention that disposable disapers have a lesser environmental impact as compared to laundering cloth diapers (never mind the stink).

I have serious reservations about referring to environmental issues as matters for ethical consideration.
JLNobody
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 12:05 pm
@engineer,
Agreed, Engineer, especially your acknowledgement of the need to consider the complexity of situations, of trade-offs. This is why I tend to favor "situation ethics" as opposed to absolute morality (or "universal ethics"). Something is ethical or unethical in degrees, situationally and relativistically: I steal from a liquor store to feed my hungry child. This is "bad" relative to the merchant's perspective, good relative to my hungry child's perspective and mixed for me because I may be caught.
0 Replies
 
engineer
 
  2  
Reply Fri 18 May, 2012 12:10 pm
@sozobe,
I think intent is a critical aspect. Murder seems pretty unethical but what about killing someone you think is about to kill someone else? Taking it to absurd extremes, would going back in time and killing Hitler be ethical? (I think there was another thread on killing thousands to save millions.) Is someone who kills an abortion doctor living their beliefs and morals or just a murderous nutcase? I think most would think the latter but I bet I could find someone to argue the former. Is giving to charity ethical if the only reason you are doing it is to promote your business or dodge taxes? While in India a toured the "palace" where Gandi was held in house arrest during the Quit India movement. It was built by a rich man with the intent of providing employment for as many local workers as possible. Is building yourself a mansion ethical if your purpose is to employ locals during an economic downturn? Is that more ethical than giving them money and not asking them to work? If your effort backfires, does your good intent make it ethical or do results matter more than intent?
 

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