Ethics for the Selfish?
March 4, 2008 2:13 PM   Subscribe

What's an easy-to-read introduction to ethics?

My friend wants to learn about ethics. I've taken a course on it in undergrad, but I'm by no means qualified to give him a solid basis in it. Do you know of a book (preferably not a full-sized textbook) which will give an introduction to the theory of ethics and some major schools of thought (i.e. Kant, Hume, Aristotle, whomever else you think is important?)
The friend in question is a businessman, and is into self-interest and capitalism. He is also, however, familiar enough with evolutionary theory to understand inclusive fitness. What he's probably going to be attempting to construct is a personal ethical framework that will tell him how selfish he ought to be (like utilitarianism, but with bigger coefficients for himself and the people he cares about.)
Nonetheless, He'd like to start off with a good solid across-the-board introduction. Ideas?
posted by agentofselection to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no scholar, but I do read ethics-oriented philosophy. I was strongly moved by the propositions, Parts III-V of Spinoza's "Ethics" (~120pp, probably available at any library). If he's really looking toward a practical form of capitalism though, he should probably pick up some Rorty.
posted by rhizome at 2:23 PM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: Elements of Moral Philosophy by Rachels. Basic, but a good place to start.
posted by cluck at 2:30 PM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: For a general, brief overview, try Simon Blackburn's "Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics".
posted by Jabberwocky at 2:38 PM on March 4, 2008

Seconding the James Rachels book.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:12 PM on March 4, 2008

Seconding Blackburn's Being Good. I really doubt you'll find a better book than that.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:32 PM on March 4, 2008

Just to be clear: Evolutionary theory has nothing to teach us about ethics. Absolutely nothing. Ethics is not about what is, it's about what should be. Evolutionary theory is about what is. If your friend is looking to optimize his selfishness, ethics is not the place to look.

To clarify a little: "Should" gets used in many different ways, so it can be confusing. One way it's used is to denote the ethical, but another, equally common way is to denote the prudential: that which is conducive to my own pleasure and convenience. I "should" do this because if I don't, I will suffer or fail to thrive, as opposed to I "should" do this because it is, in some perhaps as yet undetermined sense, the "right" thing to do. Some people conflate the two, but if you conflate them you can just throw ethics out the window--it no longer has any meaning.

I realize this does not even attempt to answer the question as posed, but I think it's something your friend should be aware of before he bothers with reading any real ethics. He might as well save himself the trouble if he is just trying to develop a calculus of selfishness.
posted by bricoleur at 6:36 PM on March 4, 2008

"Evolutionary theory has nothing to teach us about ethics."

Well, some philosophers think that evolution does play a role in ethics: Richard Joyce, Leonard Katz, ed.

For an introduction to practical ethics (though not a survey of ethical schools of thought) I would highly recommend Peter Singer.
posted by oddman at 7:01 PM on March 4, 2008

Response by poster: bricoleur: I'm familiar with hypothetical and categorical imperatives, but my (admittedly limited) understanding of ethics is that a given system of ethics defines a value, and then states that the quantity of whatever is valued ought to be increased. Shouldn't it then be possible to construct evolutionarily-based systems of ethics (e.g. Maximal adaptation is the good, Maximal species diversity is the good, maximal copies of my particular genes is the good?)

More to the point, my specific mention of evolutionary theory and inclusive fitness was meant as a corollary to the selfishness and capitalism point. Specifically, Rand's objectivist ethics state that maximal good is derived by everyone acting out of rational self interest. This has obvious assumed connections to evolutionary theory (because rational organisms are supposed to act strictly from self-interest). The concept of inclusive fitness suggests that a rational agent could increase the total success of its genes by increasing the fitness of relatives, even at a cost to its own (exclusive) fitness, hence an evolutionary example of rational agents which ought to act apparently unselfishly. The tenuous implication here is that an inherently selfish person should give due consideration to systems of ethics which are not, on the face, selfish. I realize I didn't spell this point out well in my question, and I still haven't spelled it out very well here, but then, it's not really the focus of the question. I probably should have left out everything but a request for an intro to ethics textbook, but I can never help but throw in extra info in the hope that someone will have extra advice based on it.
posted by agentofselection at 8:31 PM on March 4, 2008

he could take this free course: Moral Theory and Ethical Practice
posted by RedEmma at 9:25 PM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

agentofselection, it depends how you define "selfishness" and "self-interest." The question whether evolutionary theory yields ethical imperatives, and if so what they are, is a highly contested one; if you search for "evolutionary psychology" anywhere on the green you'll find a bunch of threads in which it's debated. (I'm NOT opening a debate about it here, just mentioning.)

Suppose that, because of natural selection, organisms that act in way X are more likely to have their genes survive into the next generation. Then acting in way X might be called "selfish" from an evolutionary standpoint, as a metaphor. I take it the traditional sense of "selfish" means a conscious person intentionally acting so as to help themselves without regard to whether it hurts others (or something along these lines). Evolutionary "selfishness" is only like this in a metaphoric sense, because it means an organism acting (whether it's a human or an ant; whether it is acting this way intentionally or not) so as to help their genes survive into the next generation -- regardless of whether this helps or hurts the individual organism in their own lifetime.

So, its fine to say that evolution tells us that organisms that act "selfishly" in this metaphoric sense are more likely to pass on genes, and thus that genes that (in proper circumstances) cause/allow the organism to act "selfishly" in the metaphoric sense are likely to become widespread. Fair enough. But this doesn't mean that genes that cause us to act selfishly in the non-metaphoric sense will become widespread -- evolution says nothing about whether acting selfishly in the nonmetaphoric sense is likely to help spread your genes or not. And it doesn't mean that it's morally good to "act selfishly" in either sense. [I think you recognize that latter point, I'm just repeating it here for emphasis.]

I mean, one could choose to value inclusive fitness, and say that one wants to act to increase theirs. In a way it seems a strange choice. For example, if one wanted mainly to spread one's genes around, one should donate as many gametes as possible and have as many of one's own children as possible. But it seems to me this thought shows the emptiness of such an ethical/value system, and how badly it captures most of what we want in an ethical system.

How well our genes do just doesn't matter to us all that much, in any ordinary system of valuing parts of a human life, or weighing different actions, or deciding whether a given action makes me a better or worse person. I mean, sure, most people value their kids and want to do a good job raising them -- but that's not solely because they contain our genes. It's because we're bound to them with all kinds of complex emotional and social etc ties. We love them. (Does that love arise from biological processes conditioned by evolution? Sure. But so what?) And it isn't just our kids -- we love our friends, we want what's best for them even when there's nothing in it for us except the pleasure of seeing our friends succeed, we value our conceptions of ourselves as being good people on one dimension or another (nurturing parent, loyal friend, tough-minded businessperson, pious believer, clear-headed rationalist, etc). There are just too many other things we value much more highly than spreading genes for the "spread your genes" theory to make sense of human ethical life. (It seems to me. Anyway, let your friend chew on this stuff after reading a good intro to ethics.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 PM on March 5, 2008

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