In this article I discuss the nature of ethics and how a compelling source of authority is essential to any meaningful morality. I then look at how this moral authority is provided by Intelligent Ethics, as defined in my book of the same title.
The Is/Ought Divide
There is no formal logic which allows you to deduce what ought to be from what is. The facts of a and b only entail other facts – if they entail anything at all. The facts of a and b only entail that you ought to do c if another element is brought into the equation – a moral imperative, the element of moral authority. A ‘because’ is required.
If a is true and b is true then you ought to do c because…
Without the ‘because’, the facts of a and b may help you discover other facts, but they will not tell you what ought to be done with them or about them. An example might be,
Fact a: Kim is hungry
Fact b: José has food
What should Kim or José do? Or what should we do, who know these two facts? With these facts alone, standing in isolation, there is no means by which to determine what we should do. With these two facts and no additional moral imperative, we cannot deduce any action that ought to be taken.
We can perhaps deduce some other facts:
If Kim is hungry then Kim is a creature who requires nutrients for sustenance but something has prevented him or her from locating or ingesting such nutrients.
If José has food then José must have acquired this food in some way, perhaps through farming, perhaps through hunting or gathering, perhaps through barter or purchase.
If José has food then there is food to be had.
Should José share the food? Why?
The facts themselves cannot tell us why. You might shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, just because…” But that because merely assumes the presence of the missing ingredient. It smuggles in the moral imperative. It really says, “Because… it’s the right thing to do.” The meaning implicit in your words, if explicitly stated, would say, “Well, José should share the food because it is the right thing to do. If one person has food and another does not, then the person with food ought to share it.” And thus the ought is brought into play. Without the because and the ought the facts merely list the facts. Only the ought tells us what to do about those facts.
You are really saying, “Share that food, José, because it is the right thing to do.”
The authority of ‘Ought’
Having moved beyond the facts, you have now let us know that José ought to share his food. We have learned that it is ‘the right thing for José to do’…
Unfortunately this presents us with a new question: “Why is it the right thing to do? Why ought José share?”
Another “Just because…” isn’t enough.
Another “Just because…” really doesn’t carry sufficient weight. How will it convince anyone who thinks that José should keep his food? Maybe José has a hungry family. Maybe José needs his food for later… Why shouldn’t he keep it? Why should he share? Your “Just because…” offers little help. The person who disagrees might say, “Well, I think José ought to keep all his food for himself, just because…”
So the ought that we have introduced to tell us what to do about these facts itself needs something more. It needs a source of moral authority.
This source of authority cannot be, ‘Because I tell you so’, since someone else may tell us something different and claim it’s right because they tell us so. And it can’t be “Because I feel it in my heart,” or “Something deep within me tells me it is so,” or “An inner conviction convinces me of it,” because anyone else can experience those same things but derive a totally different ought. One person’s inner conviction may tell you the exact opposite of another’s…
In fact, ought isn’t truly ought if there’s nothing substantial to back it up, if it’s just a feeling, a conviction, an ‘insight’ or an intuition. None of these things adds the element of moral imperative to the facts of a and b. A different person’s feelings, convictions, insights or intuitions may come up with a totally different set of oughts, so where is your ought then? Without a source of potent moral authority your ought is just hot air.
To say, “Because it is your duty” merely begs the question, “Why is it my duty? You may feel it is your duty, but why should I feel the same?” Duty, too, requires a meaningful because.
Humans have tackled this problem by laying claim to an unlimited list of sources of command – the because behind the ought. ‘Human nature’, ‘alien instruction’, religious doctrine, ‘the historical imperative’, ‘economic necessity’, the words of ancient sages or modern cults, a ‘divine purpose’, an ‘intelligent design’, ‘the power of love’, a miscellany of ancient myths and texts…
And all of these attempts have been entirely valid in their purpose, since for ought to have any power or meaning there MUST be a because – and it must be a because that is able to convince us, to gain our commitment, our willingness to recognise its authority and to place it above random impulse or selfish whim.
Without a because there is no ought.
The because of Intelligent Ethics
Intelligent Ethics accepts the Is/Ought divide. It accepts that facts are not the basis for action; it is our interpretation of those facts and how they impact on what we wish or intend to do that determines how we act. It accepts that only ethics gives sense to human activity. If we do not have a moral code, then on what basis do we make our decisions? We cannot function let alone thrive without a compass to guide our behaviour, giving it meaning, consistency and purpose. Human society could not operate without an ought, and our ought is valueless without a because.
Intelligent Ethics accepts the Is/Ought divide. It offers a moral code defining what we ought to do, how we ought to behave. And it offers a because.
The because of Intelligent Ethics is as simple and self-evident as possible. The because of Intelligent Ethics requires no leap of faith, no interpretation by others, no hierarchy of prophets or priests, no epiphany or insight restricted to the privileged few.
In Intelligent Ethics Chapter 1, the Affirmation, I suggest that nothing has meaning if there is no life. Life alone has motive, drive, purpose, urgency, agency. For inorganic matter morality is meaningless. Morality is created by life and can only have meaning in the presence of life. The Affirmation of Intelligent Ethics says,
1-xiii There is no meaning without life.
1-xiv There is no purpose to human action if life ceases.
1-xv There is no morality, no duty, no ethics without life.
1-xvi Therefore the source of morality, duty, ethics is life.
But the fact that something is the source or origin of morality, a prerequisite for morality, does not in itself provide moral authority. We must take a further step:
1-xvii Therefore IE defines our first duty as the commitment to life itself.
This statement is simple and compelling, but it nevertheless demands a commitment on our part: to accept and affirm this definition and to place it at the very heart of our morality. Intelligent Ethics makes the divide between is and ought as narrow as possible, and a bridge is provided, but it is through an act of decision and commitment on our part that we cross this bridge. Intelligent Ethics defines our first duty as the commitment to life itself… and so must we.
The step is not a large one. Without life we have no meaning. Without life there is no morality, no duty, no ethics, no purpose, no point. Therefore nothing is more fundamental, more central to our existence, than life itself. There is no better or plainer source of meaning, point or purpose. It is to life that we must commit ourselves. It is in life that our duty lies. Make this affirmation, take this small step, accept this because, and you are gifted with a moral code. You have a compass for your life – and what better compass could there be? You have committed yourself to the very essence of what you are.
The necessity of Intelligent Ethics
Beyond this easily understood commitment a pragmatic case for Intelligent Ethics can also be made. At this point in human history, in the early years of the 21st Century, Intelligent Ethics is necessary.
Without shared and consistent codes of behaviour, enabling cooperation and understanding between communities, races and nations, humanity could never have come to live together in such large numbers, in such close proximity, with such success.
Yet a gradual failure of these shared ethics, a falling away of systems reliant on the thought pattern of belief, is leading to a crisis of culture and civilisation – a retreat to such basic moral codes as ‘You ought to do x, y or z simply because it benefits you.’ Or, which is similar, ‘You ought to do x, y or z or we will cause you suffering or loss.’ Neither of these – this bribe or this threat – are sufficient to sustain a diverse and thriving humanity in a flourishing biological world. They do not support the extended nature of moral authority, which transfers duty to those far beyond the reach of threats or bribes.
We have reached a point in our history where morality has become an essential survival trait. Without a renewal of morality modern civilisation, and perhaps even humanity as a species, may not survive – and our beautiful environment and all complex life upon Earth may join us in our fate.
The benevolence of Intelligent Ethics
The Affirmation of Intelligent Ethics offers three powerful assists for everyday life.
It provides a moral compass to guide our decisions and actions, one which can be shared with others: a basis for the reconciliation of disagreements and disputes; a framework for analysis, judgement and decision; a structure within which our actions make sense.
It provides a purpose for which to live – a mission both for ourselves as individuals and for humanity as a whole. Humans need purpose. More than that, we crave Not just as an essential element of social cohesion, but also as a source of transcendence of the self, as a grounds for fulfilment, as a measure of achievement, as a connection to others which reaches beyond our personal mortality and the mortality of our culture and times. Intelligent Ethics provides this. Our purpose is the human mission, the fulfilment of our core moral aims: the nurturing of others, the nurturing of ourselves, the nurturing of all life and the sharing of life with the empty reaches of the solar system and the stars.
It provides a code of behaviour which encourages kindness, understanding, compassion and love. It is our duty to nurture others, to nurture humanity and to nurture all life. This is part of what a commitment to life means. And these are elements of human nature which allow human society to work, succeed and flourish. They are elements of our nature which must be nurtured if society is to thrive.
The reward of ethical behaviour
There is an apparent selfishness in ethical behaviour which should not be used as an excuse for not behaving ethically. To be ethical sometimes offers rewards of personal fulfilment, contentment, a sense of well-being and even of pride. We might therefore ask, “Why are we being ethical? Is it simply to make us feel good about ourselves?”
The answer is, “It matters not.”
Any reward resulting from ethical behaviour is incidental. The moral imperative which governs our actions is independent of such rewards. Our Affirmation of Intelligent Ethics means we are duty-bound to behave ethically whether or not our behaviour rewards us with self-approval, satisfaction, fulfilment or happiness. Moral action is central to our commitment to life, to the Affirmation of Intelligent Ethics. Even if unrewarded, we must behave as our ethics dictates.
The psychological and emotional rewards that come to us as a result of our ethical behaviour are merely a result of human nature: a satisfaction gained from fulfilling our instinct to care for others, to take pleasure in their well-being, and to take pride and find fulfilment in doing good. These are evolutionarily valuable instincts which we will wish to nurture and encourage in an ethical world; they will assist our purpose and help us in furthering the human mission. Yet these could never provide the authority behind our moral acts. The authority is provided by our commitment to life, our affirmation of the human mission.
Not all human nature is unreservedly good or conducive to morality. Some of our instincts and appetites must be defanged or harnessed to good ends. They evolved for hunter-gatherers over millions of years; we are no longer hunter-gatherers. We must survive and live together in our billions by cooperative means. Apart from the energy we may gain through their redirection, many of our more assertive, aggressive or acquisitive traits are now counterproductive. But those of our instincts and traits which make being ethical a pleasure are instincts which we should encourage, instincts which will enable our species to flourish and our world to survive.
The transcendence of Intelligent Ethics
Intelligent Ethics sees life as the centre of all meaning. Life in its complexity, diversity, tenacity and beauty is something we must nurture and share to the fullest extent of our capabilities. Through the sensation of life, through our contribution to life, through the sense of life’s immanence, we can transcend ourselves and connect with a purpose far greater than the fleeting pursuits of everyday existence. Through nurturing others and connecting with all life we achieve a form of immortality. We connect with the very thing that creates meaning in our universe, with a force of enduring existence and purpose and worth. We connect with life. There is every reason to feel joy at this connection, to feel reverence, to feel a sense of wonder. Look in the mirror… Look at the smallest of the creatures around you… and you see manifestations of life which connect you to every other living entity upon this planet, which connects all of us to four billion years of evolution and existence – something of unutterable subtlety, complexity and beauty. Look around you. Look within you. What you see is life: transcendent and wonderful, complex yet elemental, multitudinous… yet each and every one of us unique.
Happiness, humour, irreverence and joy
To be ethical does not mean to be humourless or solemn. The ethical laugh, cry, joke or play as much as any other. The ethical can be emotional, exuberant, childishly happy, gleefully ecstatic or, if they so choose, dour, morose and glum. It is our choice who we choose to be or how we choose to express ourselves. Freedom is central to ethics (see Freedom and Free Will, below) and the ethically intelligent are free to be whomsoever they please. The ethical seek to nurture themselves and others. They help people thrive – and part of thriving is autonomy and being your own self. Humour, irreverence, flippancy, laughter and play are as much a part of our thriving as seriousness and solemnity. In fact, thriving humans in a thriving, ethical world might find that laughter comes more easily to their lips than it does in a world which idolises ruthless competition, endless consumption and disproportionate wealth.
A renewal of trust
Who can you trust in a world where success is rated more highly than morality? Where the manipulative impact of words is prioritised over their meaning? How can we renew our trust in our politicians, our corporations, our journalists after so much discord and conflict?
Morality offers a pathway to the renewal of trust.
If to be moral means to be committed to nurturing others, to nurturing humanity and to nurturing all life, then the person who is moral is by definition someone you can trust. A moral person’s motives are your well-being, your thriving and your fulfilment as well as their own.
We are disillusioned because those who work within our governments, our corporations and our media have forgotten to prioritise morality They have prioritised other things: profit, advancement, narcissistic self-esteem, power…
What must our governments, our corporations and our media do if they are to regain our trust?
The answer is profoundly simple. They must rediscover their morality. They must become moral.
A moral journalist is a journalist you can trust. A moral businesswoman is a woman you can trust. A moral congresswoman or parliamentarian is a congresswoman or parliamentarian you will find yourself able to trust. How can we know which of our leaders can be trusted? We can trust the ones who are moral. If none are moral, unseat them. Put someone who is moral in their place.
How to become ethical
There are no criteria of membership for Intelligent Ethics. You are ethical if your actions are ethical; you are not if they are not. This text provides guidance towards ethical action and assistance in understanding what being ethical means. A first step is to engage with, understand and affirm the core moral aims of Intelligent Ethics, dedicating and committing yourself to life as the source of moral authority. Then, with the core moral aims as your guide and the fourteen expressions of Intelligent Ethics as your templates for moral action, you are well positioned to be moral.
But positioning is not enough.
A person is only truly ethical when their thoughts, plans, intentions and words are translated into ethical action.
If you are to consider yourself a good person you must further the human mission through action. You must nurture others, you must nurture yourself, you must nurture humanity, you must nurture all life.
Ethical action is your uniform, your badge of honour. There is no other.
Ethical Intelligence and Intelligent Ethics are available from Amazon in paperback and ebook format:
US and International: