Ethical Principles

Free, But ...

[NOTE: The purpose of this article is to describe exactly what ethical principles are and why all human success and happiness is dependent on them. I've addressed ethics in earlier articles, namely Objective Ethics for Freedom and Happiness, Freedom and Individualism Notes: Principles, Ayn Randís Ethics and Morality and Freedom. This article stands alone, because it is more fundamental than those.]

I do not like to coin new words, but the temptation is very great when the words available for identifying the concept one wishes to address are so corrupt. The corrupt words I mean here are, "ethics," and, "morality," which both are supposed to identify principles by which one ought to live. Historically almost every version of ethics or morality produced by the religions or philosophers have been wrong, from asceticism to subjectivism, from altruism to hedonism, from codified rules to a denial that any such principles are possible.

I considered using some other word like, "probity," or, "eudaemonics," but those words also have misleading connotations without making the intended meaning any clearer. I am therefore constrained to use the word ethics to mean those principles a human being must use to determine moral values normally identified as good, bad, right, and wrong in all one's choices and actions.

What's Wrong With Ethics

Though I use the word ethics, as I use it the word does not identify any of the almost universally wrong views of ethics that dominate philosophy, religion, and academia, and in fact contradicts all those wrong views. For example:

Ethical principles are not limitations or restrictions on one's behavior. No one is required to observe ethical principles, any more than they are required to observe the principles of physics or chemistry or mathematics. The consequences of evading any principles, including ethical principles, are always negative, (because they defy reality), but there are no other requirements compelling one to observe ethical principles, no God or mystical forces or government.

Ethical principles are not subjective. Ethical principles are based on reality, the reality of the nature of existence and the reality of human nature. Like all principles based on reality they are absolute and inviolable.

Ethical principles are not social or political. Ethical principles pertain only to individual human beings. The right name of principles pertaining to social relationships is politics, not ethics.

Ethical principles are not for judging others. They are only for individuals to use to live their own lives happily and successfully. Ethical principles may be used to identify overt immoral practices of others, but only to identify when the excesses and irrationality of such practices are a potential danger to others that need to be avoided.

Ethical principles are not dictated by any authority. They are objective principles, which, like all other principles, must be discovered, not decided or dictated.

I have no intention of disproving any of the false views of ethics. What is wrong with them will be made apparent by the true nature of ethics.

What Ethical Principles Are For

Right, wrong, good, and bad are value terms, which means they only have meaning in relation to some purpose, objective, or goal. The purpose or objective of ethics is to identify the principles by which one may live a happy, successful, and fulfilled human life.

Happiness is the state of enjoying every aspect of one's life.

Success is living one's life in a way that makes happiness possible; it is living in complete control of one's life and the course of it.

Fulfilled life is a life lived to its greatest possible potential, achieving all that is possible for one to achieve, because anything less is not true success or happiness.

Happiness does not mean free of pain, suffering, or difficulty because these are aspects of all life. Happiness results from living in such a way that pain and suffering are never taken seriously or as primary, but only as the price for achieving the the best possible, compared to which pain and suffering are incidentals hardly worth noticing.

Success does not mean never having set-backs or disappointments, which are always short term, while success is long term. Success is achieved by not letting minor defeats discourage one in the pursuit of the best in life and in oneself.

A fulfilled human life is achieving all one can possibly achieve and being all one can possibly be, in body and mind, never ceasing to grow, learn, and develop. One's own success has nothing to do with anyone else's success or failure. The standard of human success and fulfillment is one's own life and abilities and the extent to which one thoroughly does all they are able. An individual of mediocre ability who achieves all he can is more successful than the individual of exceptional ability who squanders his abilities and achieves only what is easy without exertion, no matter how much he achieves. A fulfilled life is the only kind of life that can truly satisfy human nature, and anything less is a life characterized by disappointment, guilt, despair, and regret.

Principles, Not Rules

Ethical principles are not rules, not proscriptions or prescriptions, not "commandments," and not a code of conduct. The principles of ethics, like all principles, identify relationships, in particular the relationship between the requirements of human nature and the nature of existence itself.

As I wrote in, "Freedom and Individualism Notes—Principles:"

"Just as the principles of chemistry do not tell a chemist what to do, but define the possibilities and limits of what can be done and determine the consequences or results of any particular experiments or processes, moral or ethical principles do not tell one what to do, but define the possibilities and limits of what is possible and determine the consequences of any chosen actions."

Ethical principles are not a, "handbook," of policy or procedures. Ethical principles do not tell one how to live, they only tell one, "if you live this way, these will be the consequences."

The Necessity of Ethical Principles

It is human nature that makes ethical principles necessary. Every living organism must live in a certain way to live successfully. In all creatures except human beings, the kind of behavior required for any organism to live successfully is determined by that organism's nature and all the attributes required for that kind of life are supplied by the organism's nature. All creatures live as their nature requires, except for man, because no organism except man has any choice in how it will live its life.

The unique nature of human beings does not provide them any predetermined behavior, nor does it provide them with any special attributes for living successfully. Instead of a preprogrammed pattern of behavior and a provided set of physical attributes, human being are provided minds with which they are required to discover how they must live and how to supply themselves with whatever material assets are required to live that way.

Please see the articles "Instinct" and "Mind" for details about the difference in animal nature and human nature.

The Principles

I listed and described ten principles of ethics in my Freedom and Individualism Notes: Principles article, here I want to emphasize why ethical failure not only makes human success and happiness impossible in a material sense, but is a guarantee of psychological disaster.

We know that the fundamental tool for life and success for human beings is the mind and that the mind determines the three fundamental actions of all human success, choice, reason, and knowledge, without which not only is human success impossible, but human life itself.

It is in fact how we use our minds that ultimately determines not only our material success, but more importantly our psychological integrity. In my article, "Feelings," I described the role of the emotions in human experience:

The emotions provide a direct perceptual experience of the content of consciousness. While we are conscious of our thoughts intellectually, the emotions provide a direct "visceral" experience corresponding to conceptual consciousness. Making plans for something good is accompanied by feelings of enthusiasm and anticipation; thinking or contemplating doing, or having done, something we think is wrong will be accompanied by feelings of guilt or regret; thinking about someone we admire, desire, and value very highly is accompanied by feelings of love and affection; considering something evil and ugly is accompanied by feelings of anger or revulsion.

In our actual experience, we do not usually distinguish between our thoughts and their accompanying feelings and experience them as units. The feelings and the thoughts are integrated into objects of consciousness which turn abstract thoughts into concretes which are directly perceived.

Our emotions, as automatic reactions to our immediate consciousness, is the way our human consciousness enables us to directly enjoy or "physically" experience both direct perception and our conceptual identification and evaluation of the things we perceive simultaneously.

The emotions are our nature's way of converting the abstract elements of conceptual consciousness, our concepts, values, and thoughts, into "physical" experiences. The emotions make our minds, as well as our bodies, sensuous.

Since it is the enjoyment of our lives that is their purpose, the purpose of the emotions is to enable us to enjoy our lives, particularly that most human aspect of our lives as humans, our minds. When the emotions are not a source of joy, but of suffering, it is an indication of something wrong. The thing that is wrong can be physiological, but more frequently the thing that is wrong is an individual's view of life, one's values, one's thoughts, and one's choices, and the thing that is wrong with them is they are contrary to reality and dominated by unrealistic views and desires.

Reason And Emotions

The emotions are the consequences of one's thinking, choices, values, and behavior, not the initiators of them. A very common, if not the most common, human mistake and the cause of endless confusion, pain, and unhappiness is mistaking the roles of reason and emotion. No one has ever expressed this disaster more poignantly than Ayn Rand:

"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions—provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others." ["Playboy's interview with Ayn Rand, 1964"]

Ethics And Feelings

Almost every wrong thing anyone has ever done was prompted by some desire, feeling, passion, urge, or whim. Very rarely does reason lead one to choose to do what is wrong or self destructive. As dangerous as allowing emotion to influence or override reason is, there is an even more important reason one's emotional experience depends on ethics.

[NOTE: I'm quite aware that some of the most evil things in this world are prompted by evil ideologies, beliefs based on the teachings of various authorities, politicians, and "leaders." Such beliefs are not based on reason but gullibility, or faith, or credulity which are all prompted by feelings.]

Since the emotions are automatic responses to the content of consciousness and those responses reflect one's own thoughts, beliefs, and values, it is easy to confuse one's feelings for the thoughts, beliefs, and values themselves.

"Conscience" is a perfect example. If one thinks or believes something is wrong, or their own values would make it wrong, contemplating or choosing to do that thing will produce those feelings one calls conscience. But the feelings of conscience are produced by one's own beliefs and thinking. If someone else contemplates choosing to do the very same thing but they do not believe or think it is wrong, they will experience no pangs of conscience. Conscience is not a guide, reason is the guide, conscience is a consequence of how one uses their ability to reason.

I use conscience only as an example of the relationship between the mind and emotions. It is the mind and how one uses it that determines the nature and character of one's emotional experience. This is true in every aspect of one's life, but it is most significant in relation to one's ethical principles, or lack of them.

Emotions, Ethics, And Reality

What determine's if one's ethical principles are right or not is reality. If one's ethical principles are based on the nature of reality and the requirements of human nature for success and happiness in the real world they are correct ethical principles. One's emotional experience will directly reflect their own moral values which will be a good experience to the extent their moral values are realistic and a bad experience to the extent their moral value are unrealistic. I'm not going to reiterate the correct ethical principles already described in the article, Freedom and Individualism Notes: Principles . Here I am going to describe some of the common emotional experiences (just three) of those whose moral values are unrealistic.

  • Believing one may morally evade rationally choosing all one thinks and does by allowing some authority to choose for them or allowing some irrational feelings, desires, or whims to influence or determine their choices will produce the emotional sense of inability to deal with the world and a sense that their life is out-of-control, because it is out of control, the only control possible to it, their own rational control.

  • Any view that does not recognize it is morally wrong to seek anything one has not produced, earned, or merited by one's own effort is always some form of theft. Seeking anything unearned such as wealth, goods, services, pleasure, position, or reputation, however one justifies their particular from of theft (taking welfare, accepting government subsidies, for example), they can never escape the knowledge their own existence depends on those who are not thieves and who do produce. Such a view destroys any possibility of a sense of adequacy for life and is ultimately emotionally devastating. The human need to know one is adequate for life and deserving of all he has and enjoys because he has earned it is one's sense of self-worth. It is impossible to the thief who can never escape the knowledge that he is, in fact, worthless.

    This may be the most important point in this article. If you get nothing else, understand what is wrong with theft is not the harm it does others, (if somehow it could be done without hurting others it would still be immoral). What is wrong with theft is the harm it does the thief. A fundamental emotional requirement of human nature is to have that sense of adequacy for life that comes from knowing one has earned their life and is capable of doing and achieving all that his life requires to live fully, happily, and successfully. It is an emotional requirement because being capable of doing and achieving all that life requires is an actual requirement of human nature which the emotions reflect.

  • It is a terrible mistake not to learn all one can possibly learn, yet most people do not realize it is immoral to remain ignorant. Most people learn as little as they believe they can get away with, believing what they know is good enough—after all, everyone can't be an expert and what they know is just about as much as anyone else. About the latter they are correct, because most people know very little, then wonder why they have so much trouble in dealing with life.

    No one can learn everything, or even a very large percentage of what is available to learn, but almost everyone can learn much more than they do, but are unwilling to expend the effort or time. But knowledge is, even before the physical requirements of life, the most important of all things a human must acquire.

    For humans beings, living is doing, and since everything a human being does must be consciously chosen, living is choosing. To choose correctly one must use their reason to judge which actions to choose and why. There is only one thing humans can use to think and judge—knowledge.

    Knowledge is all a human being has to think about. One cannot think, or even be conscious of, that which they have no knowledge of. They cannot even think very much or very well about things they do know, if they know only very little about them.

    Knowledge is all a human being has to think with. One cannot think anything about that which they have no knowledge of. Even if they know things, if what they know is only that they exist or what they are ( e.g. tv, computers, cell phones) if they know very little about them (e.g. how they work) they will not be able to think very much about them, and what they think will be very shallow.

    Since the scope of one's life is determined by the scope of their thinking, the scope of one's thinking is determined by the scope of their knowledge, to not learn all one can about as many things as one possibly can limits the possibility of their enjoying all those things they remain ignorant of, and more importantly limits their life to less than it could be.

    No matter how much they rationalize their ignorance, they can never rid themselves of the fact their ignorance is their own fault and that every aspect of their life that is limited by that ignorance is their own fault as well, and they can never rid themselves of the emotional sense of their own failure.

Freedom And Ethics

"Freedom," has come to replace morality in much of society and the world. "If only we could be truly free, everything would be wonderful. All our problems would be solved if we could just be free."

Perhaps they would not put it in just those words, but it is hard to believe they mean anything else when all their energy and all their rhetoric is directed at nothing but, "freedom," and, "liberty."

I would like for everyone to be free, but have no illusions about freedom doing them much good, even if they were free, in whatever way they mean freedom; although, if they don't mean freedom to live in any way they choose without anyone's interference, I'm not sure what else it could mean. It's what I mean.

Most people's problems are of their own making and no matter how free they are, "all their problems," will never be over. Freedom will not grant them some magic method of solving their problems. Freedom will do them no good so long as they have no idea how to live, so long as they have no ethical principles on which to base their values, their choices, and their behavior.

The whole point is that there is only one source of objective principles for life which is the branch of philosophy called ethics. Ethics is the only source of those principles necessary for living life successfully and happily, and so long as ethics is ignored or repudiated, must human life will continue to be miserable and a failure, no matter what their political situation is.