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A Theory of Ethics

I have developed a fully rigorous theory of ethics.  The rigorous presentation can be found here.  What follows is a non-rigorous summary of the theory.

There are three basic tenants to my theory:

  • Do no harm, except where a little harm will ultimately lead to a net benefit, both individually and collectively.
  • Work together to maximize collective future well-being, the future well-being of all agents.   By “work together”, I mean do those actions that everyone else is expected to do, too.
  • Take whatever action will maximize one’s own future well-being.

Informally, the theory begins with the naturalist assumption that value can be reduced to the well-being of agents.  It is a conspicuous gap that I have not defined exactly what well-being is.  I leave this undefined pending further analysis, but would hope that with enough scientific study, well-being can be correlated with objectively measurable observables.

I also use the model of Net Present Value in economics to define the concept of Net Present Well-Being (NPWB).  This provides a rigorous treatment of the tradeoff between current well-being and future well-being.

There must also be a measure of collective NPWB for any group. We could use the utilitarian view, which states that NPWB for the group is equal to the sum of the NPWB for all of the individuals in the group.  However, many criticisms have been brought against the utilitarianism, and a more complex, communitarian-style measure of NPWB might be more appropriate.  I also leave this question open, too, as the following will work with any definition of collective NPWB.

I define agency broadly, with differentiation of three types:

  • Rational agents, which are essentially human beings
  • Unconscious agents, which are not conscious and/or cannot feel pain; e.g. plants and protozoa
  • Conscious agents; I use this term for all other agents

Each type of agent has, in general, a limit level below which harm, or lowering of its NPWB, may not be done in most cases:

  • Rational agents: Infinity – i.e., usually no harm may be done
  • Conscious agents: The level of NPWB that optimizes the use of resources
  • Unconscious agents: Zero – i.e., any amount of harm is permissible

Harm below the limit level is prohibited except for two cases.  The first case allows harm if the action that caused the harm is part of what I call a Beneficial Action Set, or BAS.  A BAS is a set of actions such that:

  • Any individual action in the BAS raises the collective NPWB for the set of all agents affected by the BAS
  • Executing all of the actions in the BAS raises the individual NPWB of every agent affected by the BAS

The second case involves restitution.  An agent may be harmed as restitution for a past action that itself did harm and was not part of a BAS.  The action(s) that constitute the restitution must not benefit any agents more than the original harm that was done to them, except that if the original harm resulted in death, then unlimited restitution may be paid to arbitrary recipients.

A Universal Action is one that could possibly be done by any agent.

With the above definitions, I now define the three critical concepts for any theory of ethics:

  • Moral Permissibility: An action is morally permissible if it does not do harm, or it is part of a BAS, or is it allowed for restitution.
  • Moral Objective Function: This is the function that determines the moral worth of an action.  It is measured as the difference in collective NPWB for a group of agents due to the action.  This group of agents depends on the circumstances of the action as follows:
    • If the action is part of a BAS, then the group is the set of all agents affected by the BAS
    • If the action is for restitution or is a Universal Action, then the set is the set of all agents
    • Otherwise, the set consists of just the actor
  • Moral Optimality: An action is morally optimal if it produces a value of the Moral Objective Function that is higher than or equal to the value from all other possible actions under the given circumstances.

November, 2013


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