True Morality: Rational Principles for Optimal Living
Ethics, or morality, is a system of principles that helps us tell right from wrong, good from bad.
This definition, by itself, tells us nothing about the standard by which we establish or measure right and wrong. The centuries have seen many different approaches to ethics; none seem to be satisfactory. The terms ‘ethics’, and even more so, ‘morality’ carry heavy emotional baggage. Traditional approaches to morality are confused and contradictory. While supposedly telling us what is ‘right’ or ‘good’ for us, they variously imply sacrificing our lives to some Greater Good, restrict beneficial sexual conduct, oppose our legitimate desire for personal happiness or offer supposedly ideal, but impractical solutions.
I consider these views to be distortions of what ethics really has to offer — given a rational approach. Ethics should and can give real and practical guidance to our lives — our best rational interests — without sacrificing others. The system that I’m proposing is a workable personal guide to acquiring virtues that promote optimal living, both for the individual and, by extension, for society. It is designed for self-motivated individuals who seek a rational system of principles that will help them both define and achieve ever improving character and living. A system that we can enthusiastically pursue, not from duty or primarily to please others, but for personal benefit and from personal conviction.
Why Do We Need Ethics?
Morality is often used by various leaders and organizations to control society — sometimes benevolently, but usually bringing about self-sacrifice and human suffering. There are, however, far more fundamental and legitimate reasons for ethics: To provide purpose and meaning to our lives by helping to define goals in our lives — and then to help guide us to achieve them.
The most basic need for ethics lies in the fact that we do not automatically know what will benefit our lives, and what will be detrimental. We constantly face choices that effect the length and quality of our lives. We must choose our values: where to live, how to spend our time, whom to associate with, whom to believe. We must choose what to think about, and how to go about achieving our goals. Which character traits to acquire, and which to eliminate. Which of our emotional responses are beneficial, and which detrimental. By what criteria to judge others, and on what basis to interact with them. We must pro-actively think about these issues and deliberately direct our lives. To the extent that we default on this, to that extent we are at the mercy of social and emotional factors that may be far from optimal — a drifting boat, at the mercy of the currents and winds.
Ethics is about the choices that we make — or fail to make. We are aware of our conscious thoughts and of our ability to make informed, intelligent choices — that is what we call free will. We are aware that the choices that we make have consequences, both for ourselves and for others. We are aware of the responsibility that we have for our actions. But, we do not have reliable inherent knowledge or instincts that will automatically promote our survival and flourishing. We may have an inherent emotional desire to survive and avoid pain, but we do not have innate knowledge about how to achieve those objectives. A rational, non-contradictory ethic can help us make better choices regarding our lives and well-being. Issues not subject to our choice — unknown to us or outside of our control — are not moral issues.
Most moral systems concern themselves primarily with social interactions — what effect do my actions have on others. This puts the cart before the horse. How can we hope to judge what is good for others, good for society, before we have determined what is good for the individual? What is good for me? The answers to these questions — personal morality — can, and must, form the foundation to social morality, political and legal systems. Judging the morality of social norms, public policy and laws can only be done with reference to what is good for the individual. After all, social morality is supposed to benefit the individuals who make up a given society. Furthermore, each individual really only controls his own morality — others can be influenced to think and act morally, but they cannot ultimately be forced to do so.
Why Principles? Why Virtues?
Why even live by principles? Why not just make the ‘right’ rational decision as we go along? Aren’t principles limiting and, in any case, old-fashioned? Disregarding the fashionability of principles, let’s look at two major advantages of living by principles:
Firstly, the scope of our knowledge and cognitive abilities is always limited. We are never fully aware of all the factors influencing the outcome of any given choice, and thus make our decisions based on limited information. In addition, our reasoning ability is limited both in time and complexity in any given situation. Principles — generalized rules that have wide applicability — help us make better decisions in complex situations; the best decision ‘all other things being equal’. Principles can give us useful guidance in a wide range of situations.
Secondly, generalized principles can be automatized. Consistently living by rational, non-contradictory principles will tend to make principled thought and behavior habitual: Principles give birth to positive character traits — virtues. This subconscious assimilation leads to automatic emotional responses that are in harmony with our explicit conscious values. Our virtues mobilize our emotions to encourage moral choices, judgments and actions. Furthermore, our virtue-based subconscious evaluations help us make better complex, split-second decisions.
Automatic and instantaneous guidance can be immensely beneficial if — and this is a big if — we learn and automatize the correct principles. If we, for example, automatize self-hatred, superstition or a victim-mentality, then this is surely detrimental. If, on the other hand, we acquire the virtuous habit of seeking self-knowledge, then automatic internal warning bells are likely to alert us to any attempts of evading or disowning our actual emotions or actions.
Morality is an endangered species: Global communications and travel, cultural upheaval, plus massive changes in life-styles and technology are increasingly exposing contradictions and practical limitations in traditional systems. Unable or unwilling to live by hopelessly flawed dogma, we have all but abandoned systems of morality. Some resort to explicit amorality, others to a ‘pragmatic’ approach of ‘what one can get away with’, many simply do what feels right — more or less. Hypocritical behavior by spiritual and political leaders, rampant dishonesty in others, and the anonymity of urban life further encourage this rejection of traditional ethics.
However, all of these factors cannot hide our desperate need for guiding principles. Modern life offers additional freedoms that impose increasingly numerous, difficult and far-reaching choices on our lives. Choices about relationships, children, education, careers, politics, wealth, health and even death. We can alter genes, synthesize life and will soon create artificial intelligence. Our decisions have more profound consequences than ever before — ultimately effecting mankind’s very survival. This trend continues to escalate, yet ‘progress’ will not wait for us to sort out our values.
In summary, a rational, personal morality is both a conscious as well as subconscious aid to defining and achieving our goals and happiness. A guide to our own flourishing — a guide to how to live optimally.
What could be more important?
How do we determine Right and Wrong?
Traditional Sources of Ethics
Most popular systems of morality comprise a mix of four separate, but interrelated sources:
- Social rules or customs that are either agreed on by the majority or enforced by some kind of law.
- Some authority, usually claimed to be ‘divinely inspired’, that establishes an absolute dogma.
- Intuitive, emotional ‘knowledge’ of what is right and wrong — a personal moral compass.
- Rational or common sense rules and principles aimed at achieving a given objective.
Let’s explore each of these sources in some detail:
Social rules and customs are, in themselves, a mix of religious or philosophical dogma, ‘what feels right’, and common sense. They evolve by various random forces impinging on them: an influential philosopher, a charismatic spiritual leader, economic factors, disease, wars, immigration, art. The resulting morality is usually recognized as being relativist — its subjectivity being rather obvious. For example, one society believes that having more than one child is immoral, while another sees contraception as depraved. Unfortunately, this relativism does not usually prevent people from trying to force their views on others, even killing and dying for it in its name.
Religious, spiritual or cultish ethic claims to possess absolute knowledge — divinely inspired — and therefore not subjective. From an outsiders point of view its relativism is apparent. Who has the direct line to God or to some platonic Eternal Wisdom? How would we know? Conflicting claims of authenticity cannot be resolved rationally. Opponents are ‘persuaded’ either emotionally or physically. ‘Divine’ morality is frequently used by religious and cult leaders — alone or cahoots with kings and governments — to control people. Claiming a preferential relationship with Divinity, they can trade ‘salvation’, ‘absolution’ and ‘godly knowledge’ for their followers’ obedience and sacrifice. Many wars and vast amounts of human suffering have their roots in this kind of ‘morality’; though, granted, many systems are not consciously malevolent.
We all judge morality intuitively to some extent — we have deep emotional convictions about the immorality of, say, murdering an innocent victim, about abortion, or regarding child abuse. Some philosophers believe that intuition is the only valid source to knowing right from wrong. For the reasons mentioned under ‘morality as an endangered species’ many people today reject religious and social morality and rely primarily on their own personal moral compass. In one sense, this is exactly what we have to — automatized principles are essential for coping with the myriad of complex decisions we face. However, without explicit, conscious selection of the principles that we internalize, our emotions are unguided missiles. Slavery, racism or treating women as second class citizens may feel very right — as it has, and still does, to many people. Intuition is no guarantee of morality. Our moral compass needs to be calibrated and checked to ensure that our intuition guides us to desired destinations.
What we need is an explicit system of ethics to serve as a reference to the programming of our subconscious values. Without this reference, intuitive morality remains a hodgepodge of various religious, social and rational ideas picked up during a lifetime: a persuasive idea gathered here, a powerful emotional lesson retained there, added to the comfortable social and religious norms of our childhood. The overwhelming preponderance of adults retaining their own parents’ social and religious values is proof of these influences. However, the fact that many of us do break away from our childhood influences attests to the possibility of reprogramming ourselves. We do have free will — we can choose to review and change deeply held beliefs.
Everyone uses reason, the fourth source of moral knowledge, to some extent. Even the most narrow-minded, emotional or dogmatic person occasionally uses reason to try to resolve moral conflicts — and the traditional approaches certainly provide plenty of contradictions and conflict: Communists reason about the practical contradictions in communal ownership and personal motivation. Catholics decide to use birth-control as they realize the folly of that restriction. Entrenched racists often go color-blind with people they personally know well. Reality eventually impinges upon irrational beliefs. But we can go much further in utilizing rationality to establish principles for living — we can pro-actively seek to systematically eliminate contradictions, detrimental beliefs and inappropriate emotional responses. But is there really such a thing as objective knowledge — and especially with regard to moral issues?
Reason and Objectivity
Reason is the mental faculty that integrates our perception of reality while eliminating contradictions. Reason seeks to obtain as accurate a representation of reality as possible. This model includes knowledge of external reality, as well as knowledge of our own thoughts and emotions. Reasoning consists of conscious and subconscious processes. For example, intuition and induction, which are partly subconscious, are used in integration and conceptualization. Information obtained by these subconscious means must be double-checked by conscious processes to establish its accuracy. Because of limits in our cognitive ability (we are not infallible or omniscient), we need to systematically test our data and reasoning against other minds (explain, debate, learn) and against reality (gathering empirical evidence to test our conclusions).
Reason does not provide absolute, acontextual certainty. All objective knowledge — knowledge of reality obtained by rational means — is subject to context and subject to future revision and clarification. Some objective knowledge is beyond doubt; we have no reason to doubt it. That knowledge we call ‘certain’. It is certain within the context of our experience, knowledge and cognitive ability. Some of the things that I am certain of: I exist and am conscious; the Moon is smaller than the Earth; improved self-esteem improves personal well-being. Each of these statements assumes a context of knowledge and meaning; they are certain only within that context. Conceivably, at some stage additional knowledge or a changed context may render them false — but I currently have no evidence to doubt my certainty. Detailed analysis of the nature of knowledge and certainty is the philosophical field of epistemology — a prerequisite for all knowledge and thus also for ethics.
Objective, or rational, ethics provides principles that will practically achieve a desired purpose. A given principle’s truth is measured by its effectiveness. We call a principle ‘good’ if it’s good at accomplishing its goal. In this sense we can call this a scientific approach to ethics. Rational morality is an integrated, non-contradictory, reality-based system of goals and principles. But how do we establish the ultimate goal — the standard of what constitutes good and bad, right and wrong, true and false principles?
Good and Bad
Two crucial questions represent the key to understanding the moral meaning of good and bad. Yet, moral philosophers have frequently ignored these questions, or have grossly underestimated their importance. Some prominent philosophers don’t even seem to be aware of them: Good for whom? Good to what end?
For some reason, we have come to accept that there exists some independent Platonic ‘Good’ — some absolute meaning of good not related to any other standard. We will say ‘it is good to speak the truth’, meaning, somehow, good in itself — not because of some beneficial consequence. Were we to ask ‘why?’ we would get a paternal ‘because… because you should’. Ethics is rife with this meaningless categorical imperative ‘should’. ‘Should’ only has meaning in the context of ‘should in order to…’. An ethics is only as rational as its standard of value is — its standard of good and bad.
Good to what end? The purpose of ethics is to help us make decisions, to help us define and achieve our goals. If we have multiple goals, then ethics must also help us reconcile and prioritize these. Some claimed objectives of ethics are: ‘getting to heaven’, ‘doing our duty’, ‘clearing our karma’, ‘filling our evolutionary purpose’, ‘pleasing others’, ‘achieving wealth’, ‘maximizing our own pleasure’ or ‘living a full and healthy life’. Having concluded that a rational approach to ethics is the only meaningful and practical one, we can eliminate all the irrational options — goals that are not reality based. On the other hand, money or pleasure, by themselves, are not sufficiently comprehensive long-term goals. Anyone who seeks life-long guidance — and moral principles and virtues are by their very nature not quick fixes — needs to cast his moral net wider.
In the most general form, our goal comes down to defining and achieving a good life: Physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health — a fulfilled life. There are objective measures of health: Physical — living a full life-span (within the limits of current medical knowledge) as free as possible from physical impairments; Emotionally — generally free from depression and emotional conflicts, high self-esteem and the ability to experience joy; Mentally — cognitive competence including intelligence, memory and creativity; Spiritually — the ability to enjoy literature, art, friendships and love. This list is not exhaustive and is open to debate, but few people would argue about the importance of these basic qualities of human life. The particular manifestations of a good life — the specific level and choices of health, relationship, productive work, artistic enjoyment — will vary from person to person and from time to time. This general description of the good life I call ‘Optimal Living’ and take as the standard of good and bad, right and wrong. More about this later.
Good for whom? Living optimally requires holding certain moral values, setting and pursuing personal goals, and acquiring rational virtues. None of these can be done for someone else. We cannot make others think rationally, make them have a pro-active or optimistic outlook, or give them self-esteem. We may encourage others to think and act morally, but we can really only make those choices for ourselves. We can take most responsibility for our own lives because we have most control over it. We also have maximum motivation for expending the effort to live a principled, moral life when we are the primary beneficiary. In short, we cannot live someone else’s life for them.
This does not mean that what is good for us is necessarily detrimental to others — life is not a zero-sum game. Fortunately, many rational moral principles benefit both ourselves and others. Examples of these virtues are rationality, productiveness, integrity. Later I will show why these are indeed selfish virtues.
On the other hand, attempting to base morality on what is good for others, a selfless ethic, is doomed to failure. Apart from the reasons given above, altruism invariably entails that we force others to do what we think is good for them — indeed it is our duty to do so. People can be expected to make all sorts of sacrifices claimed to be to the ‘public good’. This destructive belief also reduces the individual’s moral motivation, responsibility and authority by making them shared issues. A morality based on society’s well-being is inherently detrimental to many individuals in the group because it imposes the subjective values of some of the group on the rest.
A Different Kind of Ethic
Before we look at the details of a Personal Rational Ethic, let us summarize some the key points of this novel approach to ethics by highlighting some common misconception:
‘Ethics is about social interaction only, not about individual behavior.’ This fallacy assumes that we need principles to regulate society while it denies their importance in guiding the individual’s life. Personal ethics is actually the more fundamental concept on which group ethics can be based.
‘Ethics is about duty. Anything that we do selfishly is not, by definition, a moral act.’ This unfortunate misunderstanding makes morality our foe, whereas it can, and should, actually be our friend. With rational, principled egoism, morality is self-motivated — it is our guide to a better life, health, happiness.
‘Ethics is either absolute and rigid or subjective and relative.’ Rational ethics is objective, personal, customizable, dynamic, flexible and open to new knowledge and insights.
Personal Rational Ethics: Workable Principles
Having outlined the nature and purpose of this practical and personal rational ethic, let us take a closer look at its goal — Optimal Living — and at the processes and virtues that help achieve it.
The Goal: Optimal Living
There our two fundamental, but interrelated, aspects to Optimal Living: Becoming the best possible person and living the best possible life. The first allows us to achieve the second — the second entails the first. Living a healthy, flourishing life on an ongoing basis necessitates an appropriately virtuous character. Both of these aspects can, in turn, be seen both from an abstract, generic ideal and from a specific personal context. Rational moral principles guide us towards general as well as specific values. For example, the generic value of seeking good physical health, and the specific value of discovering a diet-exercise regimen appropriate to our age and life-style. Or, identifying the general principles and virtues, and discovering particular personal character traits that require development.
Ethics should help us define, prioritize and achieve our values — general as well as specific ones.
I want to stress an important aspect of Optimal Living: Discovering and defining the exact nature of what it means to live optimally, what integrated personal health and well-being entails, is itself subject to a dynamic, ongoing process. We cannot start out with absolute immovable parameters that cast Optimal Living in concrete. However, we do start out with a pretty good idea of the sort of things essential for an objectively healthy life: Free from unnecessary disease, poverty and trauma; mental competence; sharing our life with people important to us; being able to experience joy. Many of these values will turn out to be universally recognized and valid, others that we discover may surprise us. The key is: Acquiring knowledge and fundamental virtues improves our ability to dynamically define Optimal Living.
The values that make up the basket of Optimal Living occasionally compete for priority. Objective resolution of these trade-offs is sometimes difficult — they do not always have a useful common standard for comparison. Examples include: short-term versus long-term goals; physical versus predominantly mental aspects of well-being; quantity versus quality of life. Prioritizing competing aspects of Optimal Living may, at times, be difficult, but it is far from impossible. A natural hierarchy of values helps us to determine priorities: Survival is a prerequisite for flourishing; long-term existence presupposes short-term survival; physical suffering impairs mental functioning; successful human relationships require adequate emotional health.
In any case, Optimal Living is not one single, ‘perfect’ version of life. In addition to a fulfilled life being a conglomeration if values, it also frequently offers several equally attractive alternatives: choice of professions, places to live, friends, holidays. Optimal Living gives us a general bearing rather than a specific single destination. It points us in the right direction; towards survival and flourishing — away from suffering and death.
Optimal means ‘best or most favorable under a given set of circumstances’. Optimal is, by definition, contextual and dynamic — not absolute or static. Optimal is judged against what is actually possible — what is possible in reality. For example, optimal health takes into account our actual medical history — it does not postulate some abstract, ideal genetic and environmental conditions. Our optimal spouse is not faultlessly perfect, but the best possible kind of partner given our own limitations and reality constraints.
The circumstances and contexts of our lives are also in a continual state of flux. Specific values optimal to one person at a given time may be detrimental in a different context: A mother may legitimately devote the bulk of her time and effort to rearing her children — provided that they are not 40 years old! A focus on increasing wealth may be appropriate to a happy couple planning a home and family, not to a discontented billionaire.
Our quest for an ever improving persona and life-experience is a dynamic, life-long process — an iterative, but hopefully increasingly successful journey. We seek an optimal state of personal physical, cognitive and emotional well-being. Optimal within the context of who and what we currently are — optimal within the context of what is possible. Living a moral life does not imply guaranteed abolition of disease, stress or unhappiness — even assuming the best ethics and its ideal implementation. Not everything is under our control. Ethics concerns itself with factors potentially under our control. Many factors not directly under our control — other people’s actions, nature and random chance — variously help or hinder our well-being.
Paraphrasing a well-known motto: Ethics — give me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept those I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. What is likely to give us that strength, serenity and wisdom? We will return to this question later when we explore rational virtues.
Knowledge, Goals, Action
The strategy for discovering and acquiring the virtues for Optimal Living can usefully be depicted as a triangle of knowledge-goals-action.
The amount and quality of pertinent knowledge that we acquire is crucial; it directly effects the suitability of the goals that we choose, and the effectiveness of our actions. We need knowledge both of ourselves, and of other aspects relevant to our lives. Self-knowledge, a frequently overlooked moral value, is crucial to discovering personally satisfying goals, assessing the state of our virtues (and vices), and deciding on particularly effective action strategies. Psychological knowledge, awareness, introspection and simple self-honesty combine to keep us in touch with our deepest feelings and desires, while also giving us a relatively objective measure of our character and skills. The conscious valuing of self-knowledge combined with repeated practice will, over time, yield the virtue of ‘self-curiosity’ — getting to enjoy knowing our real self.
Valid knowledge is crucial to all aspects of defining and achieving goals. We need to know what is possible in reality — and what is desirable. We also need to know practical methods for achieving those desires. Virtually every choice will be improved by having pertinent knowledge. Be it medical, financial or moral knowledge. Be it communication, parenting or social skills. But even more fundamentally, we need to know how to generally acquire reliable, objective knowledge — knowledge that concords with reality. The virtues of rationality, curiosity and honesty embody this love of true knowledge. On the other hand, the vices of mystical thinking, logical inconsistency, evasion and deceit undermine our ability to effectively understand and deal with reality.
The second corner of our triangle — goal-setting — is another underdeveloped moral concept. Without passionate, but achievable goals, life has little meaning. All the knowledge, productiveness and integrity in the world are wasted without a meaningful focus for them. Goals and knowledge stand in a reciprocal relationship with each other. Knowledge, including the all-important aspect of self-knowledge, provides the input to our goal-setting, while goals, in return, provide the parameters for our knowledge seeking. Goals that are both rationally and emotionally important to us will motivate beneficial thought and action. They can serve as a powerful driving force behind virtuous behavior such as further knowledge and (sub-)goal-seeking, productiveness and integrity. Passionate goals also have a direct positive effect on self-esteem and happiness.
Yet, discovering optimal goals is no trivial task. Unfortunately, most of us were not taught this particular skill early in life. We can so easily fall into the trap of taking on other people’s goals: Parents or social acceptability pushing us into an unsuitable profession; the media influencing our choice of romantic partner; peer-pressure coaxing us into acquiring one-upmanship possessions and bad habits. It takes excellent self-knowledge, substantial conscious effort, well thought out values, and lots of practice to learn the art of goal-setting. Two of the virtues associated with goal-setting are self-awareness and self-responsibility.
Action — the third corner of our strategy triangle — is the ‘simple’ act of getting down to implementing our plans. We sometimes get stuck at this level: We have a passionate goal and know, more or less, how to achieve it — but we don’t. Be it laziness or fear; or be it just lack of practice. Maybe we need to become aware of the virtues needed for this essential step. They include: integrity, productiveness, discipline and dynamic optimism.
Acting to achieve our values provides pleasure both in the journey towards the goal, and in its attainment. But it also serves to create new contexts for the other two corners of the triangle: It prompts new goals and sub-goals, and new requirements for knowledge. However, the essence of action is to turn our thoughts and dreams into reality — to live.
Before we explore a more comprehensive list of virtues that make up rational ethics, let us investigate two important aspects of Optimal Living: relationships and psychology.
The Importance of Relationships
Optimal Living is impossible without harmonious human relationships. Successful social interactions are an integral part of our lives and flourishing — from the most fundamental act of our conception to the glorious interplay of a romantic union. We benefit from others’ intellect by testing our reasoning against theirs; we vastly extend our knowledge, skills and productiveness by the physical and mental division of labor; we experience immense pleasure from a variety of intimate friendships; we are inspired by great artist, scientists and entrepreneurs. Effective relationships are of great benefit to us; a fact that a rational ethic must encompass.
What principles and virtues foster beneficial human interactions? The basic personal virtues of rationality, awareness, self-knowing, honesty, productiveness and integrity form a solid basis for reaping benefits from other — as they benefit from us. We prefer to deal with moral, principled people because they are productive and dependable. They represent a value, not a threat.
A uniquely social principle is that of voluntary, mutually beneficial interaction. It recognizes the merit of individuals trading value for value; not giving or taking undeservedly; not squandering value on others or defrauding them. This has elegantly been termed the Trader Principle (2). The principle recognizes the value of personal self-responsibility, authority and autonomy. People are individuals and can ultimately only successfully define and achieve their own goals. We cannot think for the irrational, be optimistic for the pessimist or satisfied for the discontented. We can also not make someone else feel genuine self-esteem. Yes, we can encourage others in these endeavors, but each individual must ultimately think their own thoughts, feel their own feelings, make their own decisions — live their own lives.
The Trader Principle rejects the notion that human interaction is a zero-sum game. Interactions can, and should be profitable to all parties. Exchanges that are voluntary are inherently deemed beneficial to all concerned, otherwise they would not engage in them. This is true not only for commercial transactions, but equally — and possibly even more importantly — for primarily emotional, psychological trades: friendships.
A healthy friendship is a mutually beneficial exchange of value — values such as positive character traits, skills, knowledge, intelligence, beauty and emotional support. We don’t keep literal scorecards of these values traded, but once they become substantially lop-sided, the relationship suffers. One person sacrifices, the other looses independence — both undermine their self-esteem.
Understanding the potential and actual value of interacting with others on the basis of the Trader Principle encourages such virtues as justice, respect, tolerance and benevolence. Achieving successful relationships, both casual and long-term, is further enhanced by good psychological knowledge, as well as communication and social skills.
This morality encourages social virtues not as ‘a price to be paid’ for personal security or simply ‘because one should’, but as a direct extension of personal virtues. Moral social interaction cannot be based on self-sacrifice — sacrifice to family, society or nation. They must be based on the individuals’ rational self-interest. Rational social principles foster our own Optimal Living — as well as that of others. It also advances diversity; yet it reduces social conflicts by providing a means of resolving them. A shared rational personal ethic forms the basis of social conduct, law and politics — conflicts are resolved using reason, not force.
The Importance of Emotions
Man cannot live by reason alone. Optimal Living entails both cognitive as well as emotional health. In fact, these two elements are closely related: Effective, rational thought helps not only to overcome psychological ailments, but can foster new highs of emotional and spiritual well-being. Emotions, on the other hand, are an essential element of cognitive competence. We have already looked at the importance of embedding moral principles at the sub-conscious, emotional level: The immediate emotional signals that our virtues provide are crucial in many of the complex moral situations that we experience every day.
However important these aspects may be, there is a much more fundamental reason to cherish emotions: The emotions of satisfaction, joy and happiness are ultimately what makes us want to live — they are the ultimate reason that we care about life.
Let us take a closer look at the nature of emotional health. The ability to experience joy, lack of chronic depression, and the absence of fundamental emotional conflicts are some of the elements that comprise psychological health. What causes these emotional states? Apart from physiological influences, our emotions are essentially subconscious evaluations: Is something a threat or a potential benefit? Will it cause me pain or pleasure? Will it promote Optimal Living or endanger it?
A positive worldview — the knowledge that we are inherently capable of learning how to live a happy, fulfilled, meaningful life, and that we deserve it — goes a long way towards ensuring emotional well-being. A reality-based, non-contradictory system of ethics further helps to reduce anxiety and confusion. More generally, a good relationship with reality encourages appropriate emotions. For example, many people experience the conflicting emotions of guilt and pride on achieving success. Any number of false beliefs may be the cause of this: Superior achievement is immoral; pride is a vice; a lingering notion instilled by our parents or church that we are ‘bad’, ‘unworthy’ or ‘useless’. Consciously identifying these errors, and then integrating the truth into our overall system of rational values will help us to enjoy our genuine achievements — without emotional trauma.
So, we can reduce emotional conflicts by consciously resolving the underlying contradictions — contradiction between incompatible beliefs, and also between belief and reality. But there is another way to increase our joy of life: We can practice pro-active optimism by framing conditions and obstacles in a more positive light. We can savor and amplify beauty, joy and success, minimize issues we have little or no control over. We can see problems as challenges, and we can speak, act and move with a considered optimism. This dynamic optimism (3) will enhance our enjoyment while promoting success — a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Furthermore, emotions are also an important aspect of rationality. The kind of rationality needed to discover useful knowledge is more than just logically integrating the data from our senses; it requires creativity, forming novel concepts and developing a reality-based ‘intuition’. Intuition, or ‘gut-level knowledge’, is the automatic, sub-conscious evaluation of a complex body of data and knowledge. It can be an extremely useful cognitive tool — provided that it is based on rationally acquired knowledge and experience, and is not fundamentally tainted by irrational superstitious or bigoted belief systems. Intuition is also crucial in guiding us as to what knowledge to seek, and when to be satisfied with the amount of detail and evidence that the context requires.
I call this enlarged concept of rationality ‘cognitive competence’. It includes common sense, curiosity, creativity, independent thinking, wisdom and a love of knowledge — an integration of logical thinking, practical knowledge and appropriate emotional support. Emotional guidance is part and parcel of all aspects of effective cognition. Trusting our cognitive judgment — ultimately an emotional assessment — requires good self-esteem; we have to judge ourselves competent.
Self-esteem is the measure of positive self-assessment — the good reputation that we have with ourselves. It combines our rational assessment with an emotional conviction that we are inherently competent and worthy to live a good life. True self-esteem is based on fact — on actual competence and true worthiness — not on imaged ability or on baseless external ‘admiration’. We can achieve ever improving self-esteem by various life-enhancing practices: Living with great awareness of relevant aspects of reality — especially the self; living purposefully and self-responsibly; living with integrity. In short, virtue enhances self-esteem. Self-esteem is a personal achievement — itself, indirectly a virtue. At the same time it serves as the basis for other virtues and achievements. Genuine self-esteem is an important measure of our success at Optimal Living.
Recently, the useful term ‘emotional intelligence’ has come into use. This concept, sometimes referred to as EQ or Emotional Quotient (4), combines emotional well-being, social and communication skills with several aspects of self-esteem. It also includes the virtues of goal-directedness, discipline and perseverance — in the guise of an ability to delay gratification. At this stage there don’t appear to be any well defined tests or development programs for EQ. However, this currently popular concept seems to usefully coincide with several important aspects of rational ethics.
Psychology is the emerging science of understanding and controlling our conscious and subconscious mental processes. Psychology concerns itself not only with self-esteem and emotional intelligence, but also with cognitive skills such as independent rational thinking, ‘reprogramming’ stubborn inappropriate emotional responses, learning how to live positively, understanding our and others’ motivations and how to communicate effectively. Seeking, and usefully applying, psychological knowledge, both in our personal lives as well as in relationships, is one of the cardinal rational virtues.
A Smorgasbord of Rational Virtues
Virtues — the habitual application of specific moral principles — form a complex network of inter-related guidelines. Depending on our perspective, we can form several different hierarchies of moral principles and virtues. For example, rationality is, in many ways, the most fundamental virtue. However from a practical perspective, useful knowledge is the real objective of rationality, and thus, knowledge-seeking is the more important virtue. Similarly, some measure of purpose and self-esteem are prerequisites for achieving any other virtue; yet they themselves rely on some of those very virtues sought.
Because of this complexity, and because I regard my list of virtues to be still ‘under construction’, let me simply provide a relatively unstructured list. Rational ethics is contextual, and I thus regard it as important to include virtues relating specifically to modern living; virtues pertaining to psychology, technology and finances. Ethics is not primarily of academic interest: ‘This is life — this is not a rehearsal.’
Knowledge virtues: Respecting reality, cognitive competence, rationality, curiosity, creativity, independent thinking, wisdom, honesty and a love of knowledge. These overlap to a great extent and are mutually supportive. We have already explored most of these virtues so let me just expand a little on three of them: Creativity is not only ‘innate’ talent; it is also a learned skill and thus a potential virtue. A number of writers have explored means of developing it. Wisdom can be described as seeking and possessing practical knowledge pertaining to human life and, in particular, knowledge of human nature and relationships. Honesty is a love of, and commitment to, the truth — truth about our selves and other aspects of reality. It is an essential part of cognitive competence — maximizing our effectiveness by rejecting fabricated ‘realities’.
Goal virtues: Self-responsibility, rational self-interest, goal-directedness, purpose-seeking, dynamic optimism, principled living, respecting value itself, love of the good. All of these virtues support discovering and valuing personal goals. Principled living — as does discipline (listed below) — recognizes the long-term nature of many of our goals. It is, of course, also the quality that recognizes the fundamental benefits of virtuous character.
Action virtues: Integrity, productiveness, independence, decisiveness, discipline, love of money and financial knowledge, love of technology and progress, health-consciousness. Integrity means acting in accordance with your beliefs and values. Productiveness is the ability and propensity to create the physical and spiritual (psychological) values needed for Optimal Living. These values may be for direct personal use or, more likely, to be traded with others. Love of money does not refer to some trivial mindless worship of accumulated assets, but to an important concrete sub-goal; the means of achieving other goals. It is also a rejection of the notion that money and wealth are inherently evil. The same applies to the love of technology. Technology should be seen as the invaluable tool that it is; not as some essentially anti-life menace. Today, we have an ever increasing degree of control over our health — all aspects of it. Habitually utilizing this knowledge to improve our competence, and more fundamentally, to increase the quality and quantity of our lives is, without doubt, a virtue.
Psychological virtues: Self-curiosity, pride, valuing self-esteem, valuing psychological knowledge. Seeking self-knowledge entails truly getting in touch with our feelings. It necessitates seeking objective knowledge of our strength, weaknesses and desires — seeking this knowledge irrespective of what we would like to find. As we practice this virtue, as we begin to realize its benefits, it will please us to learn more and more about ourselves — good and bad. We will understand that knowledge is a prerequisite for change, and that rational change leads to improved living. We will get a kick out of knowing ourselves, instead of fearing it.
Relationship virtues: Valuing trade, respect for the autonomy of others, justice, empathy, benevolence, tolerance, courtesy, communication and social skills. Virtuous people are of value to us — as we are to them. They represent an opportunity for enhancing our lives — not a threat. Recognizing this, and the fact that personal virtues are universal, that they are potentially beneficial to every individual, provides the basis for respecting the rights of others. Valuing personal autonomy reflects in our recognition of the universal right of individuals to self-ownership and to pursue their own goals. Social virtues, derived from personal ones, form the basis for developing workable social, legal and political systems — and for judging existing ones. Workable systems built on rational principles are also moral ones.
Empathy is our ability to rationally and emotionally relate to another’s point of view. Being tolerant means to put up with others’ contrary tastes or with their shortcomings. This tolerance is justified in the context of more important values arising from the relationship or the potential of a valuable relationship developing later. Benevolence is the empathetic well-wishing of others — valuing the happiness of others. Depending on circumstances, benevolence may involve both moral and material support. A related virtue is valuing and supporting justice, even in cases where we are not directly involved. These, plus the other social virtues, all help to maximize benefits of human relationships. They help ensure that, overall, people are a value to each other, and not a burden or threat.
To return to the motto quoted earlier, we now have a better idea of how ethics, rather than God, can help us live our lives: Appropriate knowledge of life and people gives us wisdom; rationality yields serenity; self-esteem, goal-directedness and dynamic optimism provides the strength.
Other Systems of Ethics
Having outlined my rational system of ethics, let me now turn to some other moral systems. We will first analyze various well-known philosophical approaches, and then look at some specific beliefs and claimed ‘virtues’ that are in actually detrimental to human well-being.
Absolutism — Moral theories that fit this description, posits that ethical rules are universal and fixed. The more extreme forms claim that moral rules apply irrespective of context — it is always wrong to kill even one murderer to, say, save a whole city full of innocent people. It is difficult to see any rational motivation for such a belief. A basis problem is: how do we get to know the right rules? Religions claim divine inspiration — impossible to verify. Some philosophers claim a mystical direct intuition of Right and Wrong: They mistake our socially conditioned, experience bred conscience for an infallible source of true knowledge. Absolutism is correct in its claim that ethics should not be relative. For example, rationality is, in principle, good for anyone seeking survival and flourishing — irrespective of their culture or era. It is also true that our emotional moral judgment, our conscience, is an essential part of living morally. The error lies in assuming that a Platonic moral ideal exists outside of human knowledge, or that some divinity can provide these rules. The truth is, that we — human beings — have to discover and develop true morality; and that we do so by means of reason.
Immanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is an attempt to define ‘should’ as a concept divorced from any object of action. We should… just because; not: we should… in order to achieve some objective. This paternalistic directive abuses the power of language. ‘Should’ without an objective is gibberish. Unfortunately this ethics of duty has been extremely influential. Any amount of suffering and hardship can be justified in the name of duty — in fact, it encourages it. This doctrine so distorts morality that it actually defines a moral act as one solely motivated by duty: If I rescue someone because I value their life, then that is not a moral act.
The opposite extreme to absolutism is the fashionable notion of moral subjectivism: Good and bad are just individual or collective preferences — essentially a matter of custom or taste. It is of course true that a lot of what passes for morality is exactly that — the unthinking, unguided evolution of habits. These beliefs and habits may, almost by chance, be actually beneficial, or they may happen to be irrational, unprincipled, short-term preferences. The belief in subjectivism inherently undermines the quest for superior moral knowledge: If good and bad were indeed just subjective preferences, then what could possibly motivate us to waste any time or mental energy thinking about morality?
Cultural Relativism — a social form of subjectivism — is based on the observation that societies adopt differing codes of right and wrong. Codes that differ by location, belief-system and in time. Many of these ethics contradict each other. Accepting this reality as the correct interpretation of ethics leaves us at the mercy of social whims. Yes, our knowledge and moral starting points are greatly influenced by our environment, but that does not preclude the possibility of discovering objectively superior principles. The fact that most people live mostly by the relativistic norms of their own society does not force us to accept that limitation.
Utilitarianism has the great virtue of selecting reason as the means of achieving its objectives. It acknowledges that we can rationally determine moral truths. Where it fails — spectacularly — is in its selection of moral goal and beneficiary. It’s primary standard is ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Not only is it impossible to define another person’s happiness, let alone achieve it for them, but more fundamentally, why should we bother to live our lives to serve the happiness of others? Utilitarianism expects us, the individual, to live — and even to die — for the irrational and impossible goal of universal happiness. It is based on the absurd premise that we should value every person in the world — and possibly even every animal — equally: My husband, wife, children are no more important than some anonymous welfare bum or banana republic dictator.
Egoism does not suffer that particular limitation. Egoism means self-interest. Egoism, as such, says nothing about the nature of our self-interest, nor the means of pursuing it. This theory potentially includes everything from irrational short-term pleasure seeking, such as drug abuse, to a comprehensive system of rational principles that encompasses both personal as well as social long-term flourishing. Personal Rational Ethics is a very specific variation of rational egoism.
Some philosophers have taken the important aspect of virtuous character as their central focus. Theirs is called ‘Virtue Ethics’. It, again, only addresses one part of the puzzle. Without defining the goal and beneficiary of our virtues, we are unable to tell a virtue from a vice. Without a standard and means of selecting virtues, it remains another subjective approach. But, even given Optimal Living as the goal, and rationality as the fundamental means, virtue ethics still lacks the explicit philosophical structure on which rational virtues are based. To function effectively, to make the right choices, we need not only the right emotional guidance, but also the conscious knowledge of how to determine right and wrong.
One approach that attempts to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ is Evolutionary Ethics. It claims that whatever moral code is in force in any given society must be ‘good’ because it survived — people who live by it survive and dominate those who live by an ‘inferior’ code. This model posits that this evolutionary process was originally caused by inborn morality carried by our genes. As mankind developed language and culture, morality evolved not only by genes but also by memes — beliefs and ideas that we are ‘infected’ with, and unwittingly pass on to others. While there is undoubtedly some truth in this view, it offers, at best, a descriptive account of ‘moral’ behavior. Accountability and responsibility, however, demand the possibility of conscious moral choices. Unchosen action caused by our genes, or by intractable conditioned responses, is outside of prescriptive ethics. Evolutionary Ethics is, in an important sense, an oxymoron.
Objectivism is the belief that moral truth exist independent of individual feelings or thoughts — that principles of morality exist, similar to other laws of nature, ready to be discovered by us. As an ethical theory it floundered for lack of a method for discovering these truths.
The name ‘Objectivism’ also refers to the philosophy of Ayn Rand (5). Objectivism is a comprehensive, integrated philosophical system that covers ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Its ethics is a virtue-based, rational egoism. It could be regarded consequentialist in a very narrow sense; its virtues are determined by their ability to achieve a very specific outcome: individual survival and flourishing.
On a personal note, let me say that I owe a great debt to Ayn Rand’s brilliant insights. Much of the ethical framework that I am presenting here is based on her philosophy. However, I also want to acknowledge Nathaniel Branden’s (6) substantial contribution in the areas of psychology and self-esteem. Whether my system should be regarded as an interpretation of Objectivist ethics is open to debate. Some Objectivists may see it as a legitimate development, others will surely regard it as heresy.
Here are some my more substantial departures from Objectivist ethics: My focus on ethics as a means of defining our goals, not only as a means of achieving them; my concept of ‘Optimal Living’; the identification of ethics as a dynamic, iterative process — we start out with only a vague idea of our goals and virtues, and improve our understanding as we acquire virtues and learn to live increasingly better; the importance of self-knowledge and psychology; the cardinal value of relationships and society; the crucial importance of emotions, including their role in rationality; the focus on knowledge-seeking and cognitive competence rather than rationality; the inclusion of ‘modern’ virtues pertaining to psychology, technology and finances.
Examples of Specific Detrimental ‘Moral’ Beliefs
One of the most disabling, and thus immoral, beliefs that has long been a cruel tool of suppression is still causing untold self-inflicted suffering. It is an essential part of religion, mysticism and superstition but has also found its way into the secular theory of determinism. It is the belief that our lives are subject to some unknown or inexorable masterplan or masterplanner: ‘It’s my karma…’, ‘If it was meant to be, I’ll….get married, find a job, lose weight’, ‘I’m just a product of circumstances’, ‘There must be a reason…that we suffered this tragedy’, ‘It is probably for the best’, ‘It is written….in the stars’, ‘It is God’s will — He works in mysterious ways’. These beliefs encourage us to abdicate self-responsibility, they paralyze us. They also undermine our self-esteem by casting doubt on our efficacy.
Religions have, of course, always used this ploy to control us. Self-appointed leaders claim to have a direct line to God or some ‘cosmic consciousness’. Some of them are self-deluded and act in ‘good faith’. No matter what their motivation, the effect is the same. We waste our time and energy following their advice, while doubting our own ability to take charge of our lives. A more subtle form of this handicap are social standards and peer pressure. ‘Act your age’, ‘Accept your station in life’, ‘That’s not the done thing’, ‘All good people go to church’.
My criticism of Karma and Fate should not be confused with the legitimate acknowledgment of cause-and-effect. ‘What goes around comes around’ is a popular expression of this aspect of causation. It recognizes that our actions have consequences — that, more likely than not, good actions will have good consequences; bad actions bad effects. On the other extreme, there are countless random chance events that impinge on our lives. Some will have significant effect on our lives, but none are causally connected to our actions in any meaningful way. We can call that luck, without ascribing any spiritual or cosmic meaning or intent to them.
All you need is Love; from Buddha to Christ to 60’s hippies. Love everyone. Unconditional love. Don’t judge others.
Dangerous advice. Love means cherishing, valuing. Unjudged, unconditional, indiscriminate love is no love at all. We judge something or someone to be valuable — that is the root of our love. To a large extent this positive evaluation is subconscious; sometimes it is unwarranted. Love manifests itself in two ways: How we feel and how we act. We may feel love for someone, yet not act in a loving way — and vice versa. This dichotomy indicates incomplete integration of our explicit values. An important aspect of optimal living is to bring conscious values and emotions into harmony. Reason usually provides the most reliable assessment, however, occasionally our emotions know better. Carefully exploring our emotions and motivations will help us to resolve these kinds of conflicts.
This does not mean that love is a moment to moment evaluation of our friends and lovers. The justified love that we have for someone is based on who and what the whole integrated person is. This may change over a period of time — and so should our love. It may grow or diminish. True love is not motivated by duty or commitment. Do we really want to be ‘loved’ by someone because ‘they promised’? Even love for our children cannot be unconditional. We may love the memory of who they were, or visions of who they might have been; we may still have many of the feelings, but we cannot consciously value a child turned mass murderer.
‘Don’t judge others’, a judgment we hear frequently. Do we really want to live by that code? Will any ol’ person do as a business partner, a baby sitter, a spouse? I doubt it. ‘Love everyone equally’ is another gem. You might just as well choose to marry your neighbor, the tax-collector, or the local child-molester. ‘There are no good or bad cultures — just subjective preferences.’ Tell that to some poor soul murdered for providing insufficient dowry. These bromides may be meant as harmless expressions of benevolence. However, anyone trying to live by them — and many are — will harm not only themselves, but others too. Let’s not confuse kindness, or lack of prejudice, with the self-contradictory concept of ‘universal love’.
To live, never mind optimally, we must judge. Judge people, cultures, laws, governments. Judge, not pre-judge. We need to know if things are good or bad, pro living or pro suffering. It is detrimental loving someone who abuses and hurts us. We are right to love political freedom; it promotes our life and happiness.
Furthermore, I yearn to be objectively judged by others. I want them to recognize my virtues, skills, strength. I also want them to reject my moral weaknesses. I don’t want others to encourage any of my detrimental behavior or beliefs. That would make them accessories.
The lack of judgment, combined with a rejection of personal responsibility, leads to the unfortunate modern phenomenon of ‘the right to be helped’. The belief that a need by one person (the have-nots) automatically imposes an obligation on another (the haves), undermines the concepts of justice and charity. It also encourages victimhood and abdication of personal responsibility. Charity is not a right or obligation. Moral charity is the voluntary assistance given to a appreciative recipient. The donor can, and should, set the terms of his assistance to ensure that the charitable gift will not be wasted or end up being counter-productive.
A major factor perpetuating this perversion of charity is the common acceptance of self-sacrifice as a virtue. Self-sacrifice — acting against your own values — is a vice. Doing things for others — our children, our partner, our community, our country — is only moral to the extent that it promotes our personal values. In that case there is no sacrifice, just selecting — often painfully — priorities among different values. Forgoing a tropical vacation to pay for our children’s schooling is no more a sacrifice than paying our rent — provided that we value having educated children. It is only when the motivation is not to protect or foster our rational values that we sacrifice. Such sacrifice may be motivated by a foolish sense of duty or by irrational goals, such as heaven.
What will such sacrifice achieve? If we regard it as moral to sacrifice our lives to our children, then what do we expect of them? To sacrifice theirs? And their children…..? Who ever gets to live? At a national level blind, self-sacrificing patriotism has provided much unnecessary cannon fodder. I suspect that the concept of Original Sin, or its more modern Freudian derivative of an inherently evil human nature, are largely responsible for the popularity of self-sacrifice. If we are born guilty, then we sure have a lot to pay for.
Many life-enhancing values have been perversely misidentified as vices or disvalues. These include reason, knowledge, technology, business, wealth, pride, pleasure, our bodies and sex. Christianity has played a large part in spreading and entrenching these unfortunate moral misconceptions in societies around the world. Another byproduct of a misguided morality can be seen in a number of popular false dichotomies: The moral cannot be practical; what is good and moral differs from what we want to do; self-interest invariably undermines social order and well-being; reason and emotion are opposing forces; worthy research and art are incompatible with money and business. Correctly identifying values and virtues, and rejecting these false dichotomies, is an important aspect of living a truly moral life.
Limits and Objections
Having espoused the virtues of my rational ethic, it is only fair that I address some limitations and objections.
Whenever I try to explain this objective ethics to a group of people, invariably, someone will pipe up — ‘But, there is no objective truth; everything is subjective. We cannot be certain of anything. There is no objective reality; only my reality and your reality’ — or some equally devastating challenge. There are many elaborate arguments to counter such skepticism. At root, this brief but meaningful response is hard to beat: Open your eyes, pinch yourself.. There, that’s reality. All the complex or subtle philosophical arguments in the world cannot deny our basic axiomatic knowledge of the existence of reality. There may well be my perception of reality and your perception of reality, but both of these perceptions are of one and the same reality. There are many things that we are perfectly certain of: I’m certain that I exist, that I’m conscious. (You better be certain that you exist and are conscious, otherwise none of this make any sense to you.) I’m certain that without food, I will starve. There are even some moral truths that we are quite certain of. For example — Improved self-esteem leads to a better life. Certain means ‘beyond doubt’. Objective knowledge is contextual, not absolute. It does not assume omniscience. Objective ethics does not claim greater certainty than its underlying premises — but then we routinely bet our lives on much lesser certainties: cars, airplanes, sexual partners.
‘Your rational ethics is all very well for you and me, but what about someone who enjoys lying and killing. Wouldn’t that give them license to be even more depraved?’. Firstly, I reject postulating some hypothetical individual who would be perfectly happy, live a totally fulfilled life, while committing the most vile acts. I’ve never come across such a person. If some actually do exist, rational ethics would be quite useless to them. They would have to reject most of the fundamental premises and end up with a hodgepodge of contradictory ‘values’. Rational ethics is a personal, self-chosen system: We choose to follow it only if we accept that reason is the most reliable means to knowledge, and if we desire to discover and achieve Optimal Living. An evil person would reject this — to his own detriment; or, he would accept it and turn into a more moral person.
My worst fear: ‘What if this morality rationally leads me to the conclusion that Optimal Living comprises preaching others honesty, obedience, productiveness, altruism, duty (sounds familiar?) while I become the most accomplished liar ,murderer and thief?’ This, of course, is the above scenario played out pessimistically. There are many arguments and thought-experiments that demonstrate the impossibility of this outcome — this, by itself, could fill a whole book (and hopefully will). To give just a taste: Because we would put ourselves in an adversarial relationship to everyone else, others would inherently be a threat to us. We would rely on their weakness, ignorance and cooperation for our happiness. Apart from fearing others, we would also be unable to enjoy close honest relationships. What kind of romantic relationship would we have? Children? Either we don’t have any, or we lie to them, too. Business partners — forget it. We couldn’t possibly trust them. Then there are all of the psychological and mental contradictions: Self-esteem relies on judging ourselves competent and worthy. Difficult, when we rely on others for our well-being, and when we know that we are denying rational values. We know that we aren’t earning our keep. Then there is the major problem of making optimal rational choices when we are not only dealing with one reality (the real reality), but are trying to juggle thousands of ‘realities’, supporting all those different deceptions and lies. This cannot possibly result in optimal living. Any partial implementation of this plan is bound to partially impair our well-being in the same way. I have no evidence that rational ethics will lead to those gloomy conclusions.
A real, and potentially serious, limitation of this ethics is the question of how to resolve conflicting moral priorities. For example, when to lie: To protect a valued life — yes, of course. To protect against an unscrupulous immoral competitor — yes, in self-defense. To protect someone’s privacy or feelings; a white lie — it depends on the circumstances. Rational ethics gives no sure, simple answers to complex problems — it can ‘only’ provide us with guidelines. It can provide us with a priceless integrated reference-framework of values. It can help us acquire empowering character traits that will allow us to better handle all sorts of situations. But, it cannot provide universal acontextual, one-size-fits-all, pre-packaged solutions. However, I hope that an emerging ‘science of rational ethics’ will contribute to an ever increasing pool of moral knowledge.
One common complaint from people who have tried to adopt this system is: ‘But it’s so difficult. To be rational all the time, to fight bad habits and long-held false beliefs, to resolve conflicting emotions — to remake your character, your soul.’ A friend remarked: ‘Yes, it’s difficult — but not as difficult as living without a rational ethic’. That is one important perspective, another is that the reward for living morally accumulates over time. Principled living is not geared primarily for instant gratification, but towards the more enduring and satisfying ideal of Optimal Living. In addition, any partial success in living morally in likely to yield commensurate benefits. Virtue leads to strength; strength to more virtue.
In addition to being motivated by the long-term rewards, there are also a number of tools and techniques that can ease our ongoing self-transformation: Understanding epistemology — what knowledge is and how we acquire it; having a clear, rational world-view or philosophy; having clear, passionate goals; concentrating on building self-esteem; practicing Dynamic Optimism; utilizing psychological methods to help dislodge stubborn emotional responses. Finally, and most importantly: To actually live by rational principles — this ethics is self re-enforcing.
Another common objection is: ‘OK, I can live and benefit by this ethics, but how do I get others to adopt it?’ The quick answer is — you don’t. This ethics is by its very nature voluntary and personal. We may encourage others to accept it, but we cannot compel them. While it would make for a more pleasant world if everyone lived by rational morality, the success of our system does not rely on others accepting it. In this way it differs from most other systems that desire social engineering or universal compulsion. If our goal were ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ we would indeed need to force many people to do whatever it takes for them to be ‘happy’. Our ambitions are far more modest, but far more pertinent — our own well-being. One of the best ways to promote our ethics is by example — to live it. Another is by discussion and explanation. In the final analysis though, if others stubbornly choose self-sacrifice, irrationality or suffering, our ethics also tells us how to deal with them — to respect their individual rights while asserting and protecting our own.
What does the future hold? Let us explore three different perspectives: social, technological, individual.
I’m encouraged by the slow, but steady, demise of religious and political dogma. However, the resultant vacuum seems to be filling with less than desirable replacements: irrational cults, mysticism and spiritualism; subjectivist deconstructionism; relativist ‘value-free’ ‘ethics’ and law. We are running the risk of a total rejection of the concept of morality — throwing out the baby out with the bath-water. Evolutionary ethics can only describe the past; it cannot show us the best way forward. On the positive side, under the pressure of ever accelerating change and complexity, people are crying out for guidance. Many seem to be ready for a workable moral alternative. If we can just get past their emotional attachment to bankrupt altruism…
Contrary to popular opinion, I see the impending dramatic improvement in longevity as a tremendous boon for mankind. Not only for the obvious selfish benefit of living a vastly extended vital life, but more generally for the advantage of having more wise people active in society. Today, just we learn how to live life — you know, after three careers and two marriages…. well, seriously — having learned to be in touch with our emotions, how to effectively communicate with others, how to make and keep money, having raised children, having had the time and interest to study some psychology, philosophy and science, having developed an appreciation for art, and so on — we find ourselves out of circulation. As our active years are extended, I expect that many more dynamic, wise and able people will experience and demonstrate Optimal Living — and will thereby positively contribute to society.
In addition to the extra wisdom provided by extended life-spans, I also expect various developments in technology to contribute directly and indirectly to a more moral existence. We have already witnessed how modern media and communications has helped to liberate millions. This trend is likely to continue. 1984 has come and gone — technology need not enslave us. New drugs and treatments, including genetic engineering, will increasingly help us manage emotions and enhance cognition. Breakthroughs in psychology and advances in epistemology will further enhance ethics. Artificial life and intelligence research is starting to make modest inroads into the study of sociology and ethics. Perhaps, in the future, these technologies will provide new valuable models and insights into what is good for us.
Further in the future — though, possibly as soon as twenty to fifty years from now — aging reversal, indefinite life-spans, bionic body and brain implants will join to vastly increase our vitality, emotional health, intelligence and knowledge. These improvements will make us more valuable — to ourselves and others. We already know that improved self-esteem fosters benevolence towards others. Competent, self-assured people do not groundlessly regard others as a threat. Many other beneficial methods of self-transformation seem possible. Technology and ethics can, and should, mutually support each other.
Finally, the individual, personal dimension: To live, explore and enjoy ethics. Being a living shining example of the benefits of our ethics is its best promotion. As we live our ethics, we gain a deeper understanding; as we learn more about it, we get more out of life. It must never become a duty or obligation. If it does, then we have slipped back into an obsolete view of morality. Rational ethics is a practical tool to help us live and enjoy life. Once it fails to do that, we must stop to reevaluate. Our selfish goal is to become the best person possible — because that person will live the best possible life.
Rational Ethics, or True Morality, is a system of principles that helps us both to discover what it means to live well, and to achieve it.
Peter Voss ‘97
Summary of Advantages
- A system that helps us to both define and achieve a better life.
- The most reliable and consistent means of deciding of what is good for our life.
- An integrated, non-contradictory system that concords with reality.
- A system that is under our own control and tailored to our individual and changing circumstances.
- A system of ethics that can be automatized, and be in harmony with our emotions.
- A system of ethics that is compatible with society and the pursuit of optimal living of others.
- A system that can, in principle, consistently avoid the use of force to resolve disagreements
- The system can be implemented at any time of one’s life and can be phased in.
- Rational self-interest
- The Goal: Optimal Living — Physical, mental, emotional & spiritual well-being
- The importance of living by principles — building a virtuous character
- (Self-)knowledge — goals — action triangle
- Dynamic, ongoing, iterative
- Key personal virtues: Cognitive competence (rationality, curiosity, creativity, wisdom), honesty, self-responsibility, principled, integrity, productiveness, discipline, independence, pride, financial, technical and psychological acuity
- Key social virtues: Communication and social skills, psychological acuity, justice, empathy, benevolence, respecting autonomy
- Peter Voss: ‘The Nature of Freewill’ on Institute for Optimal Living website
- The term ‘Trader Principle’ was, to my knowledge, coined by Ayn Rand. See ‘The Ayn Rand Lexicon’
- See ‘Dynamic Optimism’ by Max More on Extropy Institute website
- ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman
- Some of Ayn Rand’s books: Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness, For the New Intellectual. In addition I recommend David Kelly’s ‘Unrugged Individualism’ which usefully extends Ayn Rand’s philosophy by exploring the virtue of benevolence.
- Some of Nathaniel Branden’s books: Taking Responsibility, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, The Psychology of Romantic Love, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem