The five fingers of ethics

See also draft e-book The ethical consistency of animal equality

With five ethical principles, it is possible to construct a coherent ethical system that best matches the strongest basic moral intuitions that I share with a lot of other people. These five principles are like five fingers that allow us to catch a lot of ethical problems or to “play moral piano”. My personal, complete ethics is captured in those five ethical fingers.

The thumb: the universalist imperative (universalized golden rule). Act only according to that maxim (guiding principle) whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law (Kant). Or: abide by those principles which we would like that everyone abides them in all similar situations. Or: give the good example and do that what every moral being (who is capable) should have to do, even if no-one else does so. This is an unconditional commitment and we should, if need be, swim up against the stream. We should abide by those principles which are universalizable, which means that if every moral being (who is capable) should follow those principles and consequently apply them in all similar situations, there will be no undesirable consequences that violate one of the other four principles discussed below. The universalized guiding principle should not refer to an arbitrary place, time, individual or group. E.g. the rule ‘no murder’ is valid for all agents, all victims, everywhere and always, except when there are good reasons to make restrictions (specified in accordance with the four principles discussed below). The guiding principle should not have a formulation like “Do X, unless others do not X”, because such a construction undermines universalism. A universalized guiding principle can only be infringed in order to persuade others who violate the principle to comply with it. E.g. in (self)defense: using a weapen to stop abuse of a weapen.

The universalized golden rule is the basic rule of thumb. As with the opposable thumb of our hands, this golden rule should be applied to the other four principles (the other fingers) discussed below. In particular: when choosing an action (or a rule to follow, a maxim, a guiding principle), we should ask ourselves: what are the consequences if everyone (who is able to do that action) would do that action or follow that rule? If the consequences under situations of universal compliance are good (if they satisfy the principles below), then we should do that action or follow that rule, even if others don’t.

If we want to do an action, but we cannot find an underlying ethical principle or rule that can be universalized to all similar situations, we should not do that action. For example: if I want to take the train this morning, the principle “Everyone has the right to take this train this morning” cannot be applied to all persons (the train will be overcrowded). But I can find another principle that guides my action to take the train and that can be generalized to all persons: “Everyone has the right to take a train at a moment when there is some place available on the train”. So I can justify my use of the train by referring to this second principle.

It might be possible that the golden rule does not give an exclusive answer to the question what guiding principles we should act upon. If we see that two different kinds of actions are compatible with the golden rule, i.e. if universal compliance to guiding principles A and B give the same good consequences, then we break the tie by a reality check. In reality, not everyone will follow that specific action or guiding principle. If there is no universal compliance, we should look at the consequences of our actions in real life. If guiding principle A would have preferable outcomes in real life (without universal compliance) than principle B, we should act according to guiding principle A.

The forefinger: the just (impartial) distribution of quality of life. Maximize the qualities of life (values of well-being) of all sentient beings, giving a strong priority to increases of the lowest values of well being. I.e. maximize the qualities of life of the worst off individuals, unless this is at the expense of much more well-being of others. Priority for the worst-off is important, but they do not have absolute priority, because efficiency also matters. We should not sacrifice too much well-being.

This principle applies to all sentient beings: all beings who have a functioning complex nervous system; who have developed the capacity to feel and have not yet permanently lost this capacity. Included are future generations, vertebrate animals, some squids,..

Mathematically, this principle can be expressed as the maximization of the expectation value of a weighted average of qualities of life of all sentient beings. The maximization runs over all available choices. Each choice gives a different world-history. In each choice, we only consider the sentient beings that exist in that world-history (in the present or the future), and only those sentient-beings whose well-being can be influenced by our choice. The expectation value is in case the outcomes of qualities of life are uncertain. The weighted average is over all sentient beings that exist in the present or will exist in the future, whereby the lowest qualities of life get the highest weight factors, resulting in a higher priority to maximize those lowest positions. So it is a priority averaged well-being that matters. The quality of life refers to the total preferred well-being of an individual over his/her complete lifespan. This preferred well-being is the value that one would ascribe to the complete life of that individual, when looking from the most impartial point of view (e.g. from behind a “veil of ignorance”).

Placing our thumb (the golden rule) against our ring finger, we are able to select moral guiding rules: choose those rules, such that if everyone (all moral agents who are able to respect those rules) would consistently follow them (would do similar actions in all similar situations), the “priority weighted average well-being” would be maximized. In a second step, we can make a further selection of those guiding rules, using a non-ideal reality check (looking at situations without universal compliance): from the set of guiding rules that we derived in the previous step, select those rules that would still maximize the priority weighted average well-being in situations where not all moral agents comply with those rules.

The middle finger: the basic right not to be used as merely means to someone else’s ends. This is the longest finger, so this principle dominates the previous forefinger principle (to a certain degree; the middle finger is not infinitely long). A victim is used as a means, when four conditions are satisfied (See also 1) The presence of the victim is required in order to reach the ends. If the presence of the victim is not required in order for a plan to work, the victim is not used as means. 2) The presence of the agent (the user) is required (if the victim would still be a victim, even when the agent was not present, then the victim was not used by the agent). 3) The victim was coerced or deceived and did not want the treatment by the agent. This means that the victim was used as merely means. 4) The physical body plays a central role in the treatment, if the bodily integrity is violated (e.g. meat production, experiments, organ transplantation, bodily manipulation), if there is a sexual act with the body (e.g. rape, harassment), if the body is forced to do something (e.g. slavery), if the body is forced to be somewhere (e.g. in a cage), if the body is photographed or viewed (e.g. nude photography when the victim does not want that, violations of bodily privacy), if the body has an economic price (e.g. trafficking),… The body is the only thing that a being owns completely. We have a duty to help others in need, but not if our body plays the central role. One cannot say that we have a duty and should (even without our permission) donate our blood or a kidney, because this blood and the kidney are completely ours. Blood donations are morally good, but not obligatory. On the other hand, raising taxes is possible (even if the presence of the tax payer is necessary to raise the tax, and even if the tax payer did not give permission), because money is not completely owned by a person: it is possible that a person earned too much money, and if e.g. a farmer sells his harvest, the manual labor is from the farmer, but the soil is (morally speaking) not owned by the farmer. Still, forcing someone to do labor (in order to raise taxes) is not allowed, because then the body plays a central role (e.g. in slavery).

We should minimize all violations of the basic right, where a violation is determined by the complexity of a being and the importance of the ends. The more complex a being, the more its basic right can be claimed in situations involving different kinds of ends. There is a gradation in the complexity of beings. Living beings (biological cells, plants,…) are rather complex entities that have DNA, cell membranes and a metabolism. They have interests such as nutrition and reproduction. Responsive beings are more complex living beings with a nervous system, but they do not yet have a consciousness. They are like living robots. The next level is occupied by the sentient beings who have developed a complex nervous system that can generate a perceptual consciousness and subjective positive or negative experiences. In other words: sentient beings are all beings who have developed (and have not yet permanently lost) the capacity for a subjective well-being that consists in an aggregate of positive and negative feelings and emotions. Finally, the rational beings are sentient beings with a self-consciousness and rational agency. They not only have interests (like living beings), they not only react to their interests (like responsive beings), they not only feel them (like sentient beings), but they also know and understand their interests. These rational beings have the most complex emotional lives, with a future perspective, dreams, projects,…

There is also a gradation in needs. Luxury needs are the most trivial ones; they have a positive contribution to someone’s well-being when satisfied, but these needs are created by society and we can create circumstances where these needs no longer need to be satisfied in order to have an increase in well-being. Luxury needs are volatile, relative and variable. Examples are fashion, social status symbols and needs created by commercial advertisements. Basic needs are needs that are not required in order to stay healthy and alive, that have a positive contribution to someone’s well-being, are stable and not determined by society. Examples are social contact, knowledge, recreation,… Vital needs are needs that need to be satisfied in order to stay alive and healthy, such as medicines and health care. Finally, survival ends are the most important needs: they are vital needs that are not only important for individuals, but are also important for biodiversity (survival of species and biological populations). Examples are food, water, air, sexual activity,… Both vital and survival needs are “necessary” for individuals, but the difference between those necessary needs is that the latter are “natural and normal” and hence contribute to biodiversity (see the ring finger principle).

Looking at the above figure, we can see that the basic right of a sentient being is violated when he/she is used as merely means for vital, basic and luxury ends. When sentient beings are used for survival ends, their basic right is not violated. Hence, predation in nature is still allowed (see also the forefinger principle). Rational beings have a stronger basic right: they should also not be used for survival ends. Hunting rational beings is not allowed.

The ring finger: the value of biodiversity. Protect the biodiversity, because the biodiversity for ecosystems is analogous to well-being for sentient beings: both are intrinsically valuable properties of an entity (ecosystem, sentient being) that is unique and irreplaceable. That entity has a tendency to increase its valuable property (more biodiversity, more well-being).

Biodiversity consists in variations in genes, biological populations (species,…) and biological processes (predation,…). Biodiversity is everything that is the direct product of evolutionary processes (to be distinguished from human inventions). One of the reasons why biodiversity has a high moral value, is the predation problem. Predation in the wild violates two ethical principles discussed above (the forefinger and middle finger). If only these two principles mattered, we would have a duty to protect the prey from predators whenever we can. Putting the universalized golden rule of thumb against the ring finger, this implies that we should want a world without predation (a universal prohibition of predation). Such a world would have a much lower biodiversity (all predators go extinct). So predators and their hunting behavior contribute to biodiversity and we should not destroy that biodiversity.

We can reformulate the biodiversity principle in terms of behavior as follows. If a behavior is both “natural, normal and necessary”, that behavior is allowed, even if it violates other ethical principles (e.g. hunting might increase overall suffering in the world, and prey animals are used as merely means, for their meat). “Natural” means that the behavior is a direct consequence of a process of evolution (genetic mutation and natural selection). So it means that the beings who have such behavior contribute to biodiversity. “Normal” means that the behavior happens a lot. And “necessary” means those beings would die or go extinct if they would no longer have that behavior. So natural+normal+necessary means that a lot of biodiversity will be lost when the behavior would stop. Predation is normal, natural and necessary for most predators, so it is allowed (as long as there are no feasible alternatives), even if it violates the basic right (the middle finger discussed below).

For us (humans), eating animal products is not necessary, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, so we are not allowed to use animals as merely means (see the basic right middle finger principle above). This means we should go vegan. Killing for organ transplantation (by sacrificing a sentient being against his will) is not allowed either, because it is a violation of the basic right and it is not normal and natural (it is necessary though). Moving around and killing insects (by accident) is a behavior that is natural, normal and necessary, so it is allowed, even if insects were sentient beings and their well-being (the forefinger principle) was strongly violated. Procreation of animal populations is allowed, because procreation is natural, normal and necessary, even if those animals contribute insufficiently to the weighted average well-being (the forefinger principle), i.e. when these animals have short lifespans, low qualities of life, or high critical resource consumption levels.

The little finger: tolerated partiality. The above principles are derived from a purely impartial point of view. However, to avoid over-demandingness of our ethics, some partiality is allowed. Applying the universalized golden rule of thumb to our little finger, only those levels of partiality are allowed when we are willing to tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else.

For example, when helping others (or yourself), you are allowed to give (to some level) priority to those with whom you feel a personal or emotional concern or involvement (even if this does not maximize the priority weighted average well-being), on the condition that you should tolerate the choice of other caregivers to give priority to whom they prefer. So you should tolerate the choice of other helpers. Concretely: in a burning house, you are allowed to save your child instead of saving two unknown children, as long as you can tolerate that someone else saves his two children instead of your child. This principle also means that I am allowed to interfere in predation and protect the prey, when the prey is someone I hold dear (see the forefinger principle about predation and biodiversity).

As the little finger is small, only small deviations from the above principles (the other fingers) are allowed. The basic right principle of the middle finger is too strong (the middle finger is too long), and does not allow deviations. That means I am not allowed to use someone as merely means (e.g. for organ transplantation), even if it could save someone I hold dear (e.g. my child who needs an organ).

The palm: universal love and compassion. The above five principles (fingers) constitute a consistent ethical system. They can be considered as different “forces” in a consistent theory of physics. Next to a principle-based theory of ethics, we can also look at the palm of the hand, which symbolizes our loving-caring attitude. We can call it a subjective feeling of solidarity with all life (universal love), and a feeling of empathy with all sentient beings (universal compassion). We should develop these virtues of respect and compassion, even towards those people who do highly immoral things; never regard them as enemies. This love is like the unconditional care of a mother for her children: Even when her son does the most terrible things, the mother still loves him deeply, she has no hatred or disdain but empathy and respect. She’ll do whatever she can to stop his immoral behavior. She will not trust her son, and she may use violence, which is allowed as long as the violence is accompanied with that strong feeling of love. That’s the true meaning of non-violence in our real world.

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