Rational Ethics and Standards of Value

In epistemology, we've discussed that to make proper comparisons, we need a single standard of evaluation by which you compare things. That's certainly true of ethics as well. The central problem of ethics is choosing between the different possible values. How you choose is the most important aspect of an ethical system.

I refer to rational ethics as a system that allows you to choose between different values by a method of comparison. The key to rational ethics is to have a single standard of value. A standard of value is just a standard of evaluation that you use to weigh the different possible values. It has to be something that every possible value can be weighed against, and so you can pick between them. Different systems of ethics will have different standards by which they make the comparisons, leading to different results.

When I use the phrase 'rational ethics', I'm focusing on the fact that these systems of ethics choose values cognitively based on a standard of value. I don't mean to imply that the standard of value is correct, or rational. The point is to notice that the analysis of the values is done cognitively based on some objective standard. We've already seen how a system of ethics based on intrinsic values or emotional analysis are non-cognitive. This is also true where an ethical standard is not made explicit. Most people don't study the philosophy of ethics, leaving themselves without an explicit method of choosing between values. They may end up having a number of rules-of-thumb that they follow, finishing the task with "whatever feels right". They have no clear standard by which they act.

Another kind of ethics is a rule-based ethics. It says you can't do certain things. Thou shalt not this. Thou shalt not that. But when it comes to picking between the actions you are allowed to do, it doesn't give much insight. So although you can use reason to invalidate some choices, it only acts as a partial guide.

Contrast this to a system of ethics that says you should help other people. Now it's true that this isn't a rational choice of standards, but once accepted, you can use reason to determine the values that best fit this standard. You're able to evaluate who is most in need, and which actions best utilizes your resources to to accomplish it. You don't have to rely on emotions to choose between the possible actions. You can actually weigh the different possibilities against each other.

Going back to the point of ethics in the first place, we have to make choices. The only question is, how will we make them. The rational analysis that comes with having a single standard of value is a huge part of the solution. Without it, we don't actually have a complete means of picking between the different values. We leave it up to some unspecified means. In the case of relying on your emotions, it is only superficially a means of picking. In fact, it is only relying on an unspecified means.

It should be noted that not all ethical systems are concerned with values. A value-based system assumes there is some reason to pursue a particular action. It assumes that there is a point to the value. That you achieve something important. Some ethical theories favor a duty-based ethics, where you do it not because it achieves something, but because you're supposed to. That is, there is no reason, just do it anyway.

Other systems are more concerned with intentions than consequences. This is usually used after the fact to judge an action, and not really before. If someone meant well, but did something we normally think of as bad, this intentions-based ethics is a way of trying to dismiss the bad result. It's kind of a touchy-feely altruist ethics, where "caring" is more important than helping.

There are also virtue-based ethics that uphold living by moral rules or principles as the important point, and not the specific values you pick. It's more important to be honest than to achieve something positive with your honesty. Not all systems divorce virtues from value. Objectivism is one that keeps them both. We'll get into that more in the future.

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