approximate moral laws

Kantian and utilitarian ethics have accustomed us to the idea that real ethics is based on strict rules, actually laws that should always be kept and are always valid. Besides the utter impracticality of such theories, it should be noted that there is no good reason why such stubborn rules should define our morality.

I think there are at least two alternatives that are much better suited to the Real World in which we live.

The first is to downgrade moral laws to rules of thumb. In this case these rules would apply most of the time in most cases, but certainly not all the time in all cases. This has the advantage of fitting in much better with current evolutionary research on the origins of morality that points to various rather contingent sources of our ethical intuitions and ideas. Another advantage is that such rules of thumb can very easily exist alongside one another without producing any ethical contradictions. Of course, two rules of thumb might point in very different directions, but, precisely because they are no more than rules of thumb, that does not call the very structure of our ethics into questions as does happen when rigorous versions of deontological or utilitarian ethics collide.

The second option for moving beyond inflexible scientific-like ethical laws is to reformulate them to include references to the finite nature of human beings, thereby mellowing their intransigence by taking our weaknesses into account. In this case the laws maintain their strict nature but simply don’t always apply when the rubber hits the road.

I rather favor the first option, though perhaps more for esthetic than any other reasons. Whichever route is taken though, it will be better than trying to be people who we are not and living up to standards that we cannot even imagine how to meet. We need to keep it simple and stupid as the computer people say.


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