Nozick and the Problem of Moral Progress

Nozick and the Problem of Moral Progress

In attempting to achieve a new and objective approach to ethics, Nozick eschews discussion of many of the standard elements of moral philosophy: compassion, agency, harm, and sentiment. He may have been trying to avoid the nearly sentimental excesses of less rigorous approaches, but he perhaps reflects too strongly what Genevieve Lloyd refers to as “the chillingly abstract character of Reason.” The result is a provocative account of what ethics is and how it has arisen. What is missing is an account of how ethics should proceed and how one should lead one’s life, which leaves the reader intrigued but ultimately dissatisfied. Although Invariances reflects a slight retreat from Nozick’s more extreme classical liberalism of the past, his nods to libertarianism seem to prevent him from developing his moral philosophy further. He is also hampered in his project by concern over the is-ought debate, which he does not fully resolve.

Can Ethics be Objective?

Nozick’s approach to ethics is limited, at least in part, by his attempt to gain an objective standard for discovering invariant truths. His approach is stated as the following:
Unbiased and distanced choice of ethical principles leads to ones with invariance properties that, in virtue of those invariance features, are effective in achieving the goals of ethics: the protecting, fostering, or maintaining of cooperative activities for mutual benefit; the guiding of such activity (as with principles for dividing benefits); mandating behavior for response to deviations from the first two goals listed; and fostering virtues and dispositions that maintain patterns of behavior. (290)

He effectively demonstrates that competing approaches to ethics yield results that are far from invariant. Although both Rawls and utilitarians try to achieve an unbiased method that provides some distance, one arrives at very different conclusions when applying Rawls’s difference principle or a utilitarian approach. The distinction between the two, however, highlights a failing of utilitarianism, which is a focus on benefit, or pleasure. If any feature of ethics is invariant, it is more likely to be a desire to reduce harm than to promote pleasure. Although he was perhaps not the greatest philosopher in history, Arthur Schopenhauer presented a fairly compelling argument that harm, not pleasure, is the positive force in life, saying, “Evil is precisely that which is positive, that which makes itself palpable; and good, on the other hand, i.e. all happiness and all gratification, is that which is negative, the mere abolition of pain” (42).
Indeed, utilitarian philosophers often meet with widespread agreement when arguing for the reduction of suffering when discussing world hunger and medical ethics. However, the rancor of opposing sides emerges when the discussions turn to topics such as sexual ethics or sacrificing a few for the benefit of many. In discussing a utilitarian model for sexual ethics, Alan Goldman says, “Certainly I can have no duty to pursue such pleasure myself, and while it may be nice to give pleasure of any form to others, there is no ethical requirement to do so” (97). While utilitarians are unlikely to suggest that promiscuity is a moral requirement, the discussion does highlight the problem of focusing on pleasure rather than reducing harm. And Goldman goes on to note that sexual acts become immoral only when someone is harmed through force, deception, or exploitation. To achieve an objective explanation for the nature and function of ethics, Nozick must find features that are not theory-dependent but are invariant across theories. Looking toward evolutionary psychology and biology, he feels the best feature to meet this test is coordination and cooperation to mutual benefit.

Nozick anticipates the problem of describing ethics as coordination of activities to mutual benefit. He notes, “Some ethical principles do not operate to mutual benefit, and some modes of coordination (such as Thomas Schelling’s ‘coordination games’ may not strike us as ethical” (283). Simply coordinating activities to achieve some mutual benefit frequently falls outside the circle of ethical behavior, unless one reconceptualizes ethics in a radical manner. Nozick is not prepared to make such an immodest proposal. Nozick is trying to establish connections among existing ethical theories and develop an approach that will overcome past dilemmas. In order for this to work, however, there must be some qualifications on what is cooperation to mutual benefit. Without a concept of harm, cooperation often seems less than ethical. Cooperation to mutual benefit might better be described as a mutual agreement to not hurt one another. When cooperation does not reduce harm, it is rarely considered a matter of morality or ethics. If two people lose their kites in a tree and cooperate to get them out or make a mutually beneficial business transaction, this may seem desirable and good, but not a moral choice. In this example, it is assumed the kites are of little value and losing them is not considered a great harm. By changing the example slightly, getting the kites might reduce harm, and the choice might seem more like a moral choice. If the kite had been passed down to a child from a recently-deceased parent, causing the child to have great sentimental feelings for the kite, and someone helped him get the kite down to help relieve his grief, this would seem a moral choice, and most would consider it a moral obligation.

While competing moral theories are couched in various terms, reduction of harm is the underlying value for the overwhelming majority. Ethical egoists (objectivists are included here) focus on harm to the individual. Protecting one’s own self-interest generally involves cooperation with others for mutual benefit, which entails an agreement to not do harm to one another. It would be nice to say that concern for harm is an invariant feature of the human species. Unfortunately, some hold other views. Peter Singer addresses the problem in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care is bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. . . . People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. (582)

Kant also warned against indifference to suffering. In his discussion of the categorical imperative, he describes a man who is fairly well off and who decides that the suffering of others is of no concern to him. Kant notes that the man’s decision is contradictory since “instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires” (80). While humans may be greedy and selfish, it is the desire to avoid harm that generates morality and ethical theories, not a desire for benefit. It may be argued that any benefit does, in fact, reduce harm and suffering, but it is no small matter to describe benefit as the positive and quantifiable value while suffering is actually of much greater concern. It is the emphasis on suffering that gives an ethical theory both its normative force and emotional appeal.

Given that coordination to mutual benefit might better be an agreement to reduce harm, is it possible to meet Nozick’s criteria for objective ethical statements? In order to do so, Nozick demands both intersubjective agreement and invariance. He notes, “Intersubjective agreement was epistemologically prior—it was our route to discovering that a truth is objective—while invariance was ontologically prior—it specified the nature of objectiveness and it underlay and explained intersubjective agreement” (291). The desire to reduce, and therefore avoid, harm will pass fairly rigorous tests for invariance and will demonstrate nearly universal intersubjective agreement. Anyone who does not wish to agree to reduce harm in exchange for being protected from harm is generally considered to be a sociopath. When defining harm, however, intersubjective agreement breaks down. Nozick rather deftly avoids examining too many specific issues related to coordinated effort. However, when exploring the question, problems occur with disheartening frequency. Physicians tend to abide, or at least claim to, the notion that they should, above all else, do no harm. When faced with a patient who has no chance of survival, some physicians give false hope while others are brutally honest. In an effort to avoid harm, they come to opposite conclusions. The confusion is perfectly rational, though, considering the views of various patients. When interviewed, some patients will say they would not want to be told there was no hope. They would rather enjoy their remaining days in blissful ignorance. Others say they would want to know the unvarnished truth and would feel violated and degraded if misled by a physician. The physician/patient relationship is an important example of cooperation to mutual benefit, one that has brought our species and society great advancement and advantage. Nozick would do his readers a favor by providing some guidance as to how to resolve such dilemmas.

How Do We Account for Moral Progress?

According to Nozick, Ethics is, in brief, coordination and cooperation to mutual benefit. Ethics progresses by widening the circle of agents who participate in such cooperation. The progression is limited, however, by a prohibition against enforcing any ethical rules that go against an individual’s free choices. While someone may elect to act out of a caring sentiment for others, there is no moral force requiring such actions. Nozick makes no attempt to distinguish between social coercion in the form of laws and social coercion in the form of adopting a higher moral standard. Many who are opposed to legal requirements to perform any given action still feel that such actions must be performed only because it is the right and the only right thing to do. For example, many would argue that if one can save a life through minimal effort without placing one’s own life at risk, then that person is morally obligated to do so. An ethical theory that did not account for at least this level of obligation to others would seem a failure to many.
This omission seems a bit strange, given that Nozick appears to value moral progress and expresses support for including women, gays, and ethnic minorities in the circle of cooperation to mutual benefit (he even mentions the possibility of including animals and fetuses in calculations of mutual benefit). Other moral philosophers who want to substantially raise the bar for ethical standards have not advocated government coercion to enforce such standards (Rachels, Unger, Singer). Nothing prevents Nozick or any other ethicist from suggesting that moving to higher levels of ethics is something one ought to do, but Nozick seems to find this a noxious proposition at best.

Still, he seems to place some value on the higher levels of ethics. He even gives a suggestion as to how we may move to higher levels of ethics. He says:
Perhaps each layer effortlessly (though not inexorably) gives rise to the next. The domain of coordination to mutual benefit is expanded ever more widely, and the basis for this is found in traits common to all human beings. We hypothesize a basis in value for our evaluations that it would be good to extend cooperation more widely. (281)

He also notes that our actual behavior is contingent on our capacity for emotional responsiveness, which results in compassion for all people or all creatures and an “adherence to nonharm to them” (281). Some individuals will become more developed emotionally and will rise to the higher levels of ethics and assume a caring role toward other people, the world, or even animals.

Nozick also gives some hint of how moral progress can occur on a wider social scale. He uses a game-theory model whereby cooperation can be gradually extended over generations. In this model, a group previously excluded from cooperation (immigrants or slaves) will benefit from any cooperation from the dominant group, which acts, of course, from its own accord. The dominant group has shown moral progress, presumably, by merely replacing slavery, as an example, with extreme exploitation. In stark opposition to Rawls’ view of justice, Nozick appears to see it as immoral to demand anything more for the least advantaged than some participation in cooperation to mutual benefit, even if the benefit to the least advantaged is barely better than nothing. He says, “The new distribution need only surpass what each got under the old distributions for cooperation to be mutually beneficial. The principle of the first stage says that cooperation should be extended when it results in a joint distribution that is (weakly or strongly) Pareto-better than the existing one of no extended cooperation” (261-262). Still, in Nozick’s view, no group may work ethically to ensure the detriment of another group. The norms he has proposed “encourage the extension of such coordination and cooperation. And they also forbid one kind of interaction that is not to mutual benefit, namely, interacting with another (or with others) in a way that forces that other (or them) to be worse off” (264). While many would agree that moral progress does follow a pattern of exclusion, partial inclusion, and finally full cooperation with subgroups, there is a nagging feeling that humans could do better. Even where it is not possible to achieve, we still desire an ethical theory that demands inclusion of subgroups, even when the dominate social groups desire no cooperation at all or when cooperation is not necessarily mutually beneficial. While Nozick holds that we must not coerce cooperation under any circumstances, others take the opposite view. In Ruling Passions, Simon Blackburn warns against trusting a natural progression to maximum cooperation:

The advice to limit our concerns might go along with the happy belief in an “invisible hand” or mechanism by which a number of independent agents, each acting on their own narrow concerns, in fact maximize the social good. . . . This mechanism is the great buttress to free markets and laissez-faire capitalism. Unfortunately. . . there are situations in which instead of an invisible hand there is an invisible boot, ensuring that the same agents do worse than they would under a more generous regime of concern for each other.

In Nozick’s system, cooperation for mutual benefit is not exactly contractarianism, but it appears to have some of the same limitations. Cooperation for mutual benefit can be extended to groups heretofore excluded, but only by free choices. The risk is great that excluded groups will be left out of such cooperation completely or will be given only limited opportunity for benefit. Those who hold the most resources (or legal rights, prestige, status, consideration) will have all the advantages in any cooperative venture. Those with nothing will be forced to “voluntarily” accept even the smallest distribution. Groups in power could, and historically have, exclude the least advantaged for generations. Nozick notes, “Certain extensions should have taken place earlier, even when it did not benefit the extending group” (395). In this case, he is referring to slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights. He does not, however, provide a basis for moral compulsion to motivate extending groups. Given the overall structure of his theory, it is difficult to understand his use of “should” in the above quotation. This echoes the contractarian approach, which holds that moral rules are established through voluntary consent, which is quite similar to mutual cooperation. Tom Regan describes this approach by saying, “The result is that this approach to ethics could sanction the most blatant forms of social, economic, moral, and political injustice, ranging from a repressive caste system to systematic racial or sexual discrimination. Might, according to this theory, does make right. . . . Such a theory takes one’s moral breath away” (474).

Although he does not state it directly, Nozick implies that forcing cooperation against the free choices of individuals would violate the rights of adult humans. The first level mandates “respecting another (adult) person’s life and autonomy, forbidding murder and enslavement, restricting interference with a person’s domain of choice, and issuing in a more general set of (what have been termed negative) rights” (280). The explanation of how these rights arise is not provided. It might be a fairly simple matter to explain what non-humans or non-adults might be denied these rights based on the lack of ability to cooperate for mutual benefit, but it is a more challenging task to explain how adult humans have come to have these rights. Some have argued that the rights come with conscious awareness, which is a product of evolution, but this leaves us in a precarious position. At what point in the stages of evolution are rights (or consciousness, for that matter) bestowed? Negative rights exist only because humans, in cooperation or not, want them to exist. Our desire to be protected from murder causes us to declare that murder is a great moral evil. On this count, both non-humans and non-adults might readily agree.

Extending cooperation to new groups is a matter for the higher levels of ethics. Nozick apparently feels these higher levels have something to contribute to the benefit of society. He says, “I do not say that the ethics of each higher layer is more obligatory. It just is lovelier, more elevating” (281). In Nozick’s system, ethical behavior based on compassion and genuine concern for others is nice when it occurs, but it is more a lagniappe than an obligation. Nozick hints at the importance of compassion in rising to higher levels of ethics, but he does not fully explore the topic. Given his reliance on evolutionary biology, one might expect him to examine the possibility that compassion is selected for through evolution. Indeed, when one shows a particularly high level of concern for the well being of others, it is popular to describe such a person as being “highly evolved.” And this is in turn intended to indicate a person of high moral stature. It is impossible to imagine morality without compassion and impossible to imagine moral progress without increasing human responsiveness to the suffering of others.

Schopenhauer gives the idea clear expression:

Boundless compassion for all living beings is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry. Whoever is inspired with it will assuredly injure no one, will wrong no one, will encroach no one’s rights; on the contrary, he will be lenient and patient with everyone, will forgive everyone, will help everyone as much as he can, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice. (Philosophical Writings 229)

Schopenhauer goes on to say that it would be an obvious contradiction to say that someone is virtuous but knows no compassion or that someone is unjust and malicious, yet very compassionate. Ethical vegetarians are extremely aware of this feature of ethics. People who want to become vegetarians will often ask for advice on food preparation, restaurants, and so on. It is distressingly common for such people to assure the ethical vegetarian upon whom they are imposing that they care not a whit for the suffering of animals, but that they only want to improve their own health a little bit. They proudly declare their lack of compassion, lest someone perceive their actions as ethically motivated. It is simply impossible to imagine moral behavior in the absence of compassion. In Nozick’s view, though, someone’s behavior may be guided only by the desire to avoid social sanctions, rather than by compassion. While it is certainly the case that many people act only to avoid social sanctions, their behavior cannot be described as ethical in any satisfying sense. However, it is impossible to know whether one feels compassion, but it is possible to observe whether one is acting in a manner consistent with social standards. This leads to a bifurcated approach to the study of ethical behavior. Nozick, in keeping with the aim of his project, maintains an objective stance, which is at least partly empirical. We can observe and evaluate the behavior of others, and they must be sanctioned when their behavior violates the principles of coordination to mutual benefit. Many who focus on evolution as an explanation for how ethical theories have emerged and how moral behavior can be explained tend to see the universe as unfeeling and full of competition for survival, ignoring the need for cooperation to survive. Richard Dawkins, for example, describes the world as “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Some then conclude that ethics is merely the behavior that helps propagate the species. From this “is” there is great difficulty explaining any sort of “ought.” Nozick, who takes Hume’s claim that one can never derive an “ought” from an “is” seriously, struggles with this throughout his section on ethics. He states, without any supporting explanation or argument, that one is bound to pursue the widest possible cooperation to mutual benefit, apparently suggesting only that all adult humans should be considered agents in such cooperation. As much as he denies it, he seems to be saying that evolution has produced certain characteristics that should be what they are because things are as they should be. Evolution has given us certain behaviors that helped us be successful in the past, so we should continue to maximize those behaviors. He also attempts to explain why an individual should be ethical. In some sense, he feels we should be ethical for the same reasons that we should believe things that are true. He acknowledges that there are some cases in which this will not have the best result, but in general we are most successful when we are ethical and attempt to only hold true beliefs.

The claim is, in part, that evolution has instilled in us the capacity for success. Our instincts and biological functioning have ensured our survival this far, so we can be fairly confident that we perceive the world in such a way that success is likely if we trust our perceptions. On these grounds, we take it that our beliefs about the world are probably true beliefs or we would not be successful in negotiating our way through the world. There are plenty of examples of false beliefs giving advantages over true beliefs (overestimating one’s ability in competition, for example), but we still do well by believing that our perceptions give us the best picture of reality that is possible. This raises some interesting questions for both epistemology and ethics. For example, some have suggested that there is a biological basis for religious belief. When a portion of the temporal lobe in the brain is stimulated, an individual is likely to have an intense emotional response to the world, ascribing great meaning to everyday objects and experiences. This biological basis could account for religious experiences of humans around the globe. Some claim that religious experience and belief motivate people to form societies, find meaning in life, and even to coordinate effort to mutual benefit. However, since religious beliefs vary widely and are directly contradictory, it cannot be that most humans hold religious beliefs that are true. If religious beliefs have helped ensure the survival of humans, then, it cannot be that true beliefs have helped us, but it must be that false beliefs are crucial to success. Religion cannot be viewed as one of the rare occasions where false beliefs might help success—religion is a pervasive, though not universal, characteristic of humans. If evolution is our guide to what we ought to do, then it holds that we should form some kind of religious belief, and many have argued this is the case. Others would say that religious belief is precisely that which most threatens our survival. Only by shunning the supernatural can we achieve an objective and workable picture of reality and of each other. Nozick, of course, places a high value on objective truths that are, as much as possible, invariant and value free. This would exclude religious belief. It would seem, though, that excluding religion here would also exclude evolutionary biology as our guide to the objective world.

Nozick’s objective stance prevents him from accounting for an individual’s progress to higher levels of ethics. Developments in society may make it possible for societies to advance to higher levels. In extremely poor and desperate conditions the most ruthless forms of ethical egoism often replace coordination to mutual benefit. The struggle for survival is so fierce that concern for others only threatens one’s own life. In stark contrast to Nozick, Kai Nielsen believes that the ability to extend cooperation, including care, to disadvantaged groups entails an obligation to those groups to meet their needs. Further, he claims that when we can, we should satisfy all wants of all groups in a society: “We should, that is, provide all people equally, as far as possible, with the resources and social conditions to satisfy their wants, as fully as possible compatible with everyone else doing likewise.” (Nielsen 390) Nielsen feels it is morally imperative that we extend benefits equally to as many people in society as possible. To refuse is to be morally remiss. Rawls takes a comparatively moderate approach, claiming only that the least advantaged must not suffer needlessly when it can be prevented. Rawls is concerned primarily with reducing harm, while Nielsen wants to maximize benefit. If it were not for the coercion required to redistribute benefits, we might think Nozick would prefer Nielsen’s approach because it requires a wider circle of coordination. Of course, any forced redistribution of wealth gained through free choices will be anathema to Nozick. Interestingly, he might have more approval for Singer’s plan to reduce world poverty. Singer’s claim is that we must eliminate poverty by voluntarily giving our money away. According to Singer, governments cannot be trusted to solve the problem. As humans, we have an obligation to reduce the suffering of our fellow creatures. Of course, Singer is insisting that each individual has an obligation to rise to the higher levels of ethics (a position he shares with Peter Unger). Nozick only allows that we are able to rise to higher levels, never required to do so.

Nozick makes some references to extending concern to animals and fetuses. These are matters for only the higher levels of ethics, as neither animals nor fetuses are capable of coordinating effort to mutual benefit. This raises the question of agency and reveals a weakness in Nozick’s view of ethical progress. Animals and fetuses are similar in their ability or effect coordination of effort, but are quite dissimilar in other respects. Agency is frequently determined by the ability of an individual or group to enter into an agreement for standards of behavior. In this respect, most recognize that while fetuses have no ability to reach any agreement, they have the potential to make such agreements at some time in the future. Unless evolution is suddenly accelerated beyond anyone’s expectations, animals are sadly bereft of any potential for reaching any agreements or of coordinating activities. But animals cannot be thrown out of the agency circle just yet. Others (Bentham, Singer) will argue that the ability to suffer, not the ability to enter into agreements, is the basis for moral agency. On this count, fetuses are likely to have a lesser capacity than fully developed non-human animals. As cooperation with animals and fetuses is not possible, ethical choices must be guided by another principle, and reduction of harm (or suffering) suits the purpose.

The problem now is that it is difficult to quantify harm. A fetus, if permitted to survive, has the potential to experience great benefits and to benefit others. It also has the potential to cause great harm. While cooperation is not possible at the moment, the promise of future cooperation might endow the fetus with “rights” that will later impose obligations and duties. In a sense, rights are granted now for delayed obligations and duties. In the effort to reduce harm, one might argue that denying the potential adult human the opportunity to enjoy all the benefits associated with life is to do great harm to the potential human. Many see the elimination of potentiality to be of little concern. Reducing the number of humans on the planet may be the only way to ensure the survival of the species. Having the child born could cause harm to society, harm to the parents, and harm to the child. All life is filled with suffering, and being born is hardly of any intrinsic value, or so it is argued. A child who is a hardship to its parents could cause them a great deal of grief (the product of rape is only a further illustration of the same point), and a child born into poverty could become a burden on society as a whole.

On the other hand, it is argued that animals are capable of experiencing harm right now. What’s more, millions of animals are needlessly tortured and brutalized each day. While animals can be used for the benefit of humans, they do not coordinate their activities for mutual benefit, and they will never be able to do so. The only way to reduce the suffering of animals is for humans to take a caring role toward them. While humans act out of compassion for animals, no one believes animals will be able to return the favor. Still, it is argued that having evolved from lower animals, our experience of pain must be similar to the experiences of at least the higher order of mammals. Understanding the pain of animals compels us to try to reduce it, understanding that we would want our pain to be reduced whenever it is possible.

These problems illustrate the importance of agency in an ethical theory. Nozick’s mandate for the widest coordination possible does not address genuine moral problems that we must face on a daily basis. If the ability to participate in cooperative activities determines whether one is deserving of consideration, then what is the status of adults with brain damage (from diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease or from injury), children, fetuses, or animals? There must be some normative force behind the idea that we must rise above the first level of respect and show some concern for the suffering of those who are able to suffer.

How Should We Live?

Nozick makes the claim that people should be moral in order to be valuable:
Being moral instances and realizes a more general kind of value, and you should be moral because it is . . . a better way to be. The unethical person may not care about being more valuable (when he realizes what value is), but his not caring about this just reinforces his lesser value. The unethical person, then, is not getting away with anything. (283)

Nozick goes on to claim that this value sanction is an “attractive and promising theoretical route to giving normative force to ethics” (283). It is true, in general, that those who refuse to coordinate activities to mutual benefit are valued less by society, but it is hard to see that this will give normative force to ethics. Snipers, corporate marauders, and petty thieves seem to thrive on the lack of value society gives them. The value sanction itself seems to compel them to greater and greater crimes. Psychological egoism claims that people act only from their own self-interest. Both moral and immoral individuals choose the actions that benefit them in the most direct way. Those who have risen to the highest level of ethics of caring and responsiveness do this only because it makes them feel good to do so. In Nozick’s view, these people are probably those who are concerned with value and being valued. Being valued by society, according to egoists, is a selfish motivation for acting in a moral manner. The counter claim, of course, is that wanting to be valued and desiring value is the definition of a moral person in the first place, so this cannot be a sign of selfishness, but only of moral worth. No one should apologize for being the type of person who feels good when doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the unethical person might feel just fine by taking advantage of weaker people, using deceit to gain objectives, and even of using violence and force for sheer pleasure. The unethical person, then, derives pleasure from being wicked. In order to give our theory moral force, we almost need to say that everyone should want to have moral value and derive pleasure from doing works that coordinate to mutual benefit.

Existentialists have made the claim that humans always choose “the good.” By choosing an action, one gives that action a stamp of approval. The CEO who plunders the wealth of his stockholders has consciously chosen this action as better than all competing options. Each person is responsible for his own actions, and there can be no universal standard by which actions are evaluated. There is a catch, however. Each individual lives in a world of other people, and these others can often perceive the individual just as she is. As Sartre put it in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” The person who lives with no concern for others, who violates even the most basic level of ethics, must live with the nagging fear that others will perceive him as he really is, and shame is his lot. Unfortunately, many feel neither shame nor remorse, and no one has found a way to instill these feelings (or compassion) in people who do not have them. We can explain why ethical behavior is good for humans and, therefore, should be encouraged. We cannot explain why an individual who is unethical can be compelled to become ethical.

It is possible, however, to examine how one comes to be unethical in the first place. If compassion is essential to ethical behavior (or concern for having a greater value), then we could look at people who lack this feature and try to determine why. This might lead to a deterministic view that shows that ethical behavior is only the product of genetics, environment, and training. Such a view could still be of great value, though. The discovery of genetic markers that prevent the development of compassion, or finding educational methods that inculcate a value for reducing suffering, or manipulating the environment to produce more caring individuals might be seen as an advance. Many (libertarians, for example) will see any efforts to create ethical individuals to violate the first level of respect for persons. The most likely approach will be to label unethical behavior as a symptom of a disease, and then interventions will be medical interventions, rather than political or social coercion. The gloss that ethical behavior gives life would likely disappear in such a world of manufactured behavior. Nonetheless, suffering might be greatly decreased.

On the subjective individual level, and individual is likely to develop a sense of whether moral behavior is of value or not by interacting with other people. A person who is honest, compassionate, and concerned for mutual benefit might have a variety of experiences. In a positive and loving community, this person will be valued and will be successful in relationships, contracts, and personal fulfillment. This person’s sense of morality is likely to grow stronger and stronger. In other environments, the compassionate person will be abused, manipulated, and exploited. This person is likely to learn the lesson quickly and become hardened and disinterested in either the approval or the suffering of others.

Nozick has provided a brilliant descriptive framework for ethics, giving plausible explanations for the function and origin of ethics. If someone were so inclined, Nozick’s ideas could probably be developed into a comprehensive theory for describing ethics. It is likely that the theory would pass most tests for objectivity and might even have a number of invariant features. The system would still lack, however, all but the weakest moral force. Using evolutionary biology as a basis for this theory and combining it with concern over the is-ought debate prevents Nozick from developing a more robust ethical system. Add to this a libertarian perspective that shuns all but the weakest ethical obligations, and the system is limited almost entirely to descriptive ethics, but Nozick is trying to establish something more than a mere description. He is trying to establish something that is morally binding. In order to do so, it is necessary to bring in ideas such as agency, compassion, and harm. The concept of harm is essential to developing an idea of what is ethical. Compassion, or a similar sentiment, is necessary for distinguishing between ethical choices and choices that are merely beneficial. And agency is necessary for determining what individuals or groups are to be considered a part of the ethical realm. At the minimum, an ethical theory should compel individuals to reduce harm and consider the interests of all sentient beings, though this consideration does not entail that all sentient beings are in any sense equal. With or without social sanctions, efforts to compel individuals to be compassionate are doomed to failure. An ethical society, then, should examine what actions and conditions nurture compassion and work toward a more compassionate world. Advances in technology, communications, medicine, and science all create increased opportunities to extend cooperation and show compassion to a greater number of groups. Where it is possible to reduce harm, nurture compassion, and widen the circle of cooperation, it should be undertaken. This is not to say that social sanctions should be in place to coerce individuals, but it is to say that anyone who fails to reduce harm, nurture compassion, and widen the circle of cooperation is not acting ethically. To be ethical requires this much at least.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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