I studied philosophy at Oxford and in ethics was drawn to John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism. Human happiness as a basis for morality seemed more attractive than rules and commandments and all the thought experiments seemed to suggest the ‘right’ thing to do drops neatly out of weighing all the consequences of your actions and choosing the course with the best or least worst consequences. Great.
The problem is I’ve increasingly realised for me it doesn’t work. Why? In truth I have to admit I first realised I had a problem because utilitarianism looks bad. When people see you weighing ‘secular’ values, like money or resources against ‘sacred’ ones like the value of a life or rights or fairness it ‘feels’ wrong. And here is the clue I think. It feels wrong.
Listening to a Philosophy Bites podcast I heard someone say the job of ethics is to accurately describe our innate ‘felt’ sense of what is right. When I first heard it I thought it was plumb wrong. I thought the job of ethics was to lay down a rational, internally consistent code of behaviour and then win everyone round to living by it. The trouble is like bills of rights and codified legal systems and utilitarianism it’s too hard and there will always be exceptions and situations and messiness in human affairs which are important but don’t fit.
So I’m coming round to the view that it’s a lot simpler than I thought. Our minds are Bayesian probability engines. We take the sum total of all we know, have seen and done and form instinctive ‘gut’ judgements on things which we then test against new data. That’s how we work. Bayesian probability means following your gut on something you’ve never seen, done or know anything about may not be the best approach – get some data or ask someone.
But on things you know a great deal about, people, what’s right and wrong, what you should do and what you shouldn’t you have an amazing storehouse of knowledge and experience accumulated over your whole life, plus the cultural and biological inheritance of the entire human race since we evolved. The on the great moral questions and the big ethical choices in our lives, the ‘right’ thing to do is follow your gut, ignore your head – you know it makes sense.