"Ethics" is a fancy word for good behavior. The subject studies why we should do right.

As children, we were told what was right and wrong by our parents, and probably didn't question it too much, especially if the guidance was given with... physical reinforcement. Then as we grew older we probably did question those rules, or if not we should have done. We will now.

All humans have a conscience, which acts as a valuable compass-needle indicating what is right and wrong behavior in general terms - but only roughly, and of course it can be damaged, like any delicate instrument. We shall here look for a rational basis for ethics, for we've learned in TOLFA that above all humans are rational, reasoning animals.

The alternative is to seek a superstitious or supernatural basis for ethics, and for that reason we shall not give that the time of day. It will not do, for a rational human to hear "do this because I say so" or "do this because God says so" because (in the first case) each of us is independently responsible and cannot make tough choices on somebody else's say-so and (in the second) the question of God's very existence has not yet been settled (see Segment 5), let alone that of where we might be able to find His tablets of stone that specify acceptable behavior.

1. What are "Good and Evil"?

We touched on this in Question 5 of Segment 2 (close it, to return here) and found that "evil" has to do with "something that forces a human being to act in a way contrary to his wishes." Since humans are self-owning individuals, an evil act is anything that interferes with that self-ownership. That definition, note, is rational; it follows from the self-ownership axiom.

From that in turn it follows that "good", as the opposite to "evil", must be "anything that does not interfere with a person's self-ownership."

What, is that it? - yes, pretty well. And yes, that simple definition is different from what we may have been brought up to follow. We may have been taught to respect government - a gang of thugs in the daily business of violating people's self-ownership rights all over the map. We may also have been taught that goodness has to do with positive acts of kindness. What are we now to say of those?

It isn't hard. Positive acts of kindness are indeed good because they don't interfere at all with a person's self-ownership right. But they aren't indispensible to good behavior; rationally, goodness has only to abstain from doing evil - simply to respect everyone else's self-ownership as we expect them to respect ours.

Incidentally, a couple of very interesting conclusions follow from this:

  1. It is impossible for government ever to do good, or anything other than evil, or ever engage in a compassionate act. Before it can do something kind, it has first to obtain the resources for it from someone else under threat of force; it must in its very nature violate A in order to benefit B. "Compassion", on the lips of a politician, is a word of the deepest hypocrisy.

  2. It is also impossible for anyone to make any moral choice (of good or evil) unless one is free to do so, ie not under compulsion. If government forces one to do A, then one can be neither blamed nor congratulated for doing A; for example again, if government steals money as tax and then gives it away to help starving children in Africa not only is it, the government, not being compassionate but also you, the ultimate provider of funds, are not doing something good either; for you had no choice. Thus, government destroys human compassion both coming and going and excludes all possibility of making a moral choice whenever it legislates conduct.

But to return to our theme: having shown what good and evil are, let's see why, rationally, a member of a free society "should" eschew the latter and practice the former, so that the whole society doesn't spiral down into a vicious, destructive jungle.

2. Why be Good?

(a) To Live with Oneself

Rationally, we acknowledge that humans each own themselves; we know "I" own "myself". Therefore, we acknowledge that everyone else owns himself. Therefore, to live consistently and at peace with oneself, one must conduct one's affairs so as not to violate his or her right.

(b) To Protect One's Reputation

Here is a crucial reason: self-interest. In a free society, especially now that information is about as freely accessible worldwide as it used to be in a village, our livelihood is closely bound up with our reputation; and a reputation is very much easier to lose than to rebuild.

In passing in Segment 3, we noticed that in business competition, it would be very bad idea to shoot out the tires of one's rival trucking company (to violate his right.) Why? - because the moment news of the aggression got out, we would be hard put ever to win another contract! So strictly for reason of self-interest, we will compete only fairly - that is, by offering potential clients an advantage.

(c) NOT to Sacrifice Oneself

(a) and (b) above are about it: those are the two reasons, and notably the second, for avoiding evil and embracing good behavior. Self-interest is the key principle! Whatever preserves or enhances the self is good - including living healthy and eating & drinking wisely - and whatever damages it is bad.

Notice how dramatically different that is from traditional ethics based on Judeo-Christian religious teaching - which tells us, in essence, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. "Greater love hath no man," said Jesus, "than to lay down his life for his friends." Surprise: self-sacrifice has nothing at all to do with rational ethics, with why we should be good.

This brings a couple of important implications. First, what are we to say of the case in which someone we love dearly is in dire need of help? - about to drown, perhaps, in a flooded stream? Are we to jump in at heavy risk to our own lives, or stand on the bank and wave sadly good-bye?

The answer will come to us in the moment of crisis: we shall make an instant judgment on which is preferable for our self-interest - to live without our loved one, or to run the risk of losing life itself. Self-interest will be the guide. Some will choose one way, some the other. Harsh and uncaring? - on the contrary, that is the only rational way to choose.

Second implication, not unrelated to the first: self-sacrifice is a truly benighted idea.

There are a couple of reasons. First, if all "good" people sacrifice their lives for others, either in the full and literal sense as above or in the sense of dedicating a life to the needy, like Mother Teresa, then the proportion of good people remaining in society is going to shrink - presumably leaving it to the mercies of bad people. This is rationally nonsensical and self-destructive.

Then secondly, if the way to be "good" is to pour out one's life in the service of others, it follows that in order to be good, we'd be dependent on an endless supply of people who (by that definition) are "bad." That in turn means that those in need of help (with physical disability for example) are branded as "bad" and that there can never be more than about 50% of the human race who can ever make it to an adequate level of "goodness"! That is the logical outcome of supposing that goodness is achieved by self-sacrifice and that absurd and heartless result suffices to de-bunk it completely.

(d) To Enhance Self-Esteem

True though it is, the above is not to say that positive acts of compassion have no place in rational ethics. There's a bumpersticker that urges all to "commit random acts of kindness" every day, and it's a pleasant thought. How would that fit in?

It would be just another aspect of self-interest. Do something kindly with no thought of return - it makes one feel very good about oneself, and raises one's self-esteem! This is the good reason for all acts of charity, and should not be under-rated for they can be very rewarding, as we noticed half way through Segment 3. Notice the huge difference though, between doing such a thing for that reason, and doing it so as to sacrifice or abnegate oneself. They're polar opposites!

3. Segment Review

Although this has been a shorter segment than some, it may also be the most radical. It takes centuries of seldom-questioned premises and turns them on their heads. Understandably, it may not be easy to embrace it all at once. But when it is absorbed, it will be immensely liberating. It means that never again need you suppose you exist for the benefit of another. You are your own - nobody else's!

Before moving on to Segment 5, please answer these questions to your own satisfaction and perhaps pause a day to let the implications take root - and do spend time in "Further Reading", especially the articles with free on line access.

Q1    Q2    Q3    Q4    Q5   

Study Plan

For further reading:
Right, Wrong and the Difference
Tall tales from Garrison Keillor
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand