Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Thought Processes behind Ethical Decisions

What do we think when faced with an ethical problem? What goes on in our heads in those excruciating split-seconds?

To help you in following the discussion below, try and imagine what would go through your head when faced with a situation like the one below to make a decision. 
  • The traffic light is red. But there's no one looking (not even cameras). Should you jump the signal?
I tried to conduct the above thought experiment over several sessions of thinking. Follows a list of traces of thoughts that I could detect in my mind. Of course, the experiment was conducted with an attempt to be objective. So, I have tried to keep my own personal dispositions out of the way.

Reward and Punishment
Do that for doing which there is a reward, or  for not doing which there is a punishment.

The above is an obscenely simple, and potentially the most profound of all mechanisms of practicing ethics. Why it is simple is because it works on grown ups, kids and even animals. Why it is profound is because it is parameterised with how one interprets the notions of reward and punishment. A reward may mean something as simple as a kiss from parents for which a child decides to eat his food quietly. Or it could mean a national independence that a freedom fighter lays down his life for.

Except in the most direct ethical problems of day to day life, this mechanism fails to provide a good and timely solution. In most cases but the most trivial ones, it will result in very narrow-minded behaviour if used in a time-budgeted manner. And if we try to use it in very fundamental manner, we mayn't reach a conclusion in time.
Religious Approach
Follow the scriptures.

There are people who do well in ethical sense by sticking to what's considered correct as per their religious belief. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't kill. Don't be greedy. Most of it is all there in any religious text and following one is a sure bet that you will by and large be ethical.

Difficulties arise in the implied aspects of religion. So, some people think women should cover up. Others think freedom to dress at will is a part of the notion of freedom. Some people say eating meat is violent. Some say eating some specific types of meat is OK, while eating others is bad. There are too many religions around and there are disagreements. One notion is that all religions are fundamentally in agreement. But the level of abstraction where the agreement is complete doesn't lead to anything actionable. Refinements and interpretations are essential to turn religious thoughts into actionable ones. And that's where disagreements creep in.

Spiritual Approach
Follow your heart.
There are many cases where we are well-aware of what's going on in our mind. We may be able to sugar-coat our greed as something really good. But, the heart is most often ruthlessly clear about such acts of deceit.

However, an act done with an honest sense of good could be disastrous. Even if we discount the direct ethical connection between an act and its consequence, we can't leave out the disagreements that may arise. And then comes the question of how strongly should one stand on one's opinion. For example, Gandhiji was known to be pretty rigid about what he thought to be right. People like Hitler must also have been pretty convinced that they were right in tried to wipe out a complete race. There are so many schizophrenics around. Spiritual approach doesn't help in telling one from others.

Civic Approach
Grant full loyalty to a social structure, movement, or concept and do what you think benefits it.

We can view ourselves as tiny little components of something larger than ourselves. You may call it the country, the world, the society or whatever. It's a human creation, and we all have teamed up to create it. This requires order and cooperation and we owe it in our conduct. Obey rules. Respect other fellows' requirements. You look at it this way, and it becomes rather simple to decide as to what should be done.

Whom to be loyal to? The faith here is that we are components of something which is inherently good. And here lies the tricky part. Let me illustrate this with an example. We find ourselves in membership of composite structures which more often than not conflict with one another. For example, trivially, we are members of our own self. Then family. Friend circle. Organisation. State. Country. Caste. Religion. Human race etc. It's hard to define at which level of this compositional hierarchy should we define our absolute allegiance based on which we drive our ethical decisions. For example, you may be working for a mining company which is taking away precious minerals from your country dealing it a profound long term damage. So, should you not act against your company in the interest of your country? Perhaps. Unless, your country is a hostile one which will eventually use all its mineral reserves to manufacture or purchase weapons of mass destruction.

Hope of effectiveness. The other difficulty arises when the effectiveness of our action is not clear. Then our decision completely rests on how hopeful we are that our act of loyalty will fulfill its intended goal. Most unethical acts fall in this category. Most ordinary people do something wrong not because they directly find it rewarding to do it, but because they feel foolish trying to do something good. Not bribing. Not jumping signals. Not producing false bills. Civic approach to ethics relies on an unflinching faith in entity to which you have vowed your loyalty. This approach becomes ineffective when one loses the faith in the above premise, or in the ineffectiveness of one's ethical act in really serving the charter of that entity.

Scientific Approach
Do what is objectively the correct thing to do. In case of no clear answer choose whichever you please, including nothing at all.

Let me go back to the example of driving -- an everyday act which, I feel, requires a huge number of moral decisions taken in split seconds particularly where application of reward-punishment duality is particularly tricky. The primary purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B. Everything that prevents us from being at B instantly on starting the journey could be taken as an impediment. This approach would lead us to look with hostility at everything: any turn on the road that doesn't directly point towards B, the traffic, the traffic lights, traffic rules, the finite power of the car...even laws of physics! I agree that there's nothing moral or immoral about taking this approach. The one thing problematic about this approach is its stupidity. The most logical approach here is to understand that nobody owes us a right of way in our journey unless its a mutual understanding. It's equally likely that we will not succeed in forcing our way through realities to our destination unless we get them to work in our favour through a mutually agreeable protocol. Similarly, it's ridiculous to think that anyone gains by not letting us be there at our destination as early as possible. In the light of this realisation, treating all the above artifacts with hostility appears stupid more than anything else.

Theoretically, the above seems robust. Except that in my view, I haven't found scientists doing too well in general when it comes to ethical living. They cheat at work. They envy and back-stab their peers. They misbehave with and disrespect the general people, sometimes even their family members. Pretty lousy people, sometimes. Why do people trained to think scientifically fail to work out the details of ethical questions? What goes wrong?

InterconnectionsThe above approaches aren't orthogal. There's a relations between religious approach and spiritual approach. Civic approach is similar to religious approach in most part except that the object of loyalty is worldly in one case and mystical in the other. Religious approach is similar to the approach of rewards and punishments when it's driven with the idea of securing a good after-life.

In fact as aluded to earlier, all mechanisms could be fundamentally based on a notion of reward and punishment. However, to interpret it literally would be dangerous and naive in the same manner as would be equating animal selfishness with principles of advaita.
Concluding Remarks
We must remember that ethics is one of the fundamental problems of philosophy. Like most fundamental problems of philosophy, it eludes a final, universally accepted solution. But like all problems of philosophy, it touches our lives in a very basic way. In some sense, practicing ethics is something we all, philosophers and non-philosophers, must do. In this article, I have tried to list and present a primitive analysis of the mechanisms we ordinary people employ for practicing ethics. Further thoughts on them will undoubtedly add clarity to our understanding of our own mechanisms of practicing ethics.


Pritesh Ananth Krishnan said...

A very very profound post Sujit. I can see that it sure IS an 'issue' (I won'y call it a problem, per se) that eludes ONE idea that solves it all.

All in all, I am really thankful that you bring up the 'hope of effectiveness' in your post. I completely agree that most day-to-day ethical (and unethical too) acts boil down to this.

"If I do it, what does it hurt?", "If I report this, anyway no one will take action".....these are thoughts that assault us every single day, in all places.

One classic conflict I have faced only too often is: Whether I follow the rules or defy them for this specific exception I have come across? Not charging a poor person fee for something that is a paid service is one of them. Where does one draw line between 'exercising compassion' and 'following laid out rules'?

What a wonderful post, I think I will spend my day thinking about just this

fuse me said...

Great post, just for the sheer range of issues that it covers. I must say that you have thought about it from almost every conceivable angle. Really thorough!

I personally don't have an ethical standpoint at all, not do I have an algorithmic means of resolving it. I keep flitting between these different paradigms that you have suggested in order to make my ethical decisions. Very often, my actions contradict any sort of standpoint or view. I respect those who have a rigid personal standpoint or at least a personal way of arriving at the decision. It never works for me though. I just see to it that I don't do anything illegal or immoral, but I'm sure I do loads of unethical things, ethical from some point of view.

I am sure many follow a similar line of thinking.

JJ said...

Sujju Bhai! Thank you.
This post reassures me that there are other brothers in their search for the ever evading 42.