Acting ethically

It seems to me five things are necessary to act ethically:

  • You have to want to do it
  • You have to have good ethical values
  • You have to have accurate factual knowledge
  • You have to be able to use logic
  • You have to know (or learn) how to do the right thing

Desire to do the right thing

Education or instruction about what is morally good is not sufficient for moral enhancement because to be morally good involves not just knowing what is good, but also being so strongly motivated to do it that this overpowers selfish, nepotistic, xenophobic, etc., biases and impulses. An instructive comparison could be to people who know perfectly well that they ought not to smoke tobacco or eat sugary and fatty food because it is hazardous to their health, and yet do so out of weakness of will. Techniques of cognitive psychotherapy, such as vividly imagining how awful the harmful consequences of this behaviour could be of help, but might not suffice in all cases. Some individuals might be so strongly genetically disposed to nicotine or sugar addiction that they cannot get out of their addiction without biomedical treatment.

It might be wondered how such treatment could affect our attitudes without affecting our cognitions, but there are everyday experiences that could serve as models. We know that, by overexposure, we could get tired of a sensation or taste that we have hitherto liked and stop liking it, though the sensation or taste remains the same-the phrase 'getting tired of a sensation or taste' implies that the sensation or taste remains the same. Likewise, when people are cured of their irrational fear of spiders, by being exposed first to very small spiders, and successively to larger and larger spiders, until they are able to bear contact with spiders of a size much larger than the ones that used to occasion fear, without feeling fear any longer. There is no reason to think that their perception of those spiders have changed, though their emotional reaction to it has. It is conceivable that a pharmaceutical could cause the chemical changes in our brains underlying these attitudinal changes without our having to undergo any protracted exposure to the relevant stimuli, and suffer the stressful effects that such exposure might bring along. Pharmaceuticals are in fact given to people with agoraphobia or social phobia to reduce their anxiety.

- Persson and Savalescu, Unfit for the Future




Knowing how

You do not realize that one has to learn to speak the truth. It seems to you that it is enough to wish or to decide to do so. And I tell you that people comparatively rarely tell a deliberate lie. In most cases they think they speak the truth. And yet they lie all the time, both when they wish to lie and when they wish to speak the truth. They lie all the time, both to themselves and to others. To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth. The wish alone is not enough. To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and what a lie is, and first of all in oneself. And this nobody wants to know.

- P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous

The (optional) 6th thing: non-attachment to outcomes

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