On the urgency of ethics

Compared to all other areas of philosophy as well as science, ethics seems to ask a particularly urgent kind of questions. Why should we prefer one action over another? How should we take into account other people, actual or potential? What should we do to give our lives meaning, and why does it matter? If there indeed is a basis for normatively evaluating our actions in this manner – a meaningful sense in which we should do some things instead of others, as most people seem to believe there is – it seems true that our understanding of these things ideally needs to precede everything else. By definition, it’s important to figure out the potential shoulds as soon as possible, lest we just carry on doing things essentially at random almost certainly including a bunch of stuff we shouldn’t have done, and wouldn’t have if only we’d have thought about it in time.

Still, surely only a tiny fraction of the people best equipped to work on this kind of problems, those with the curiosity, motivation, imagination, and intelligence to tackle all types of difficult questions currently conceivable to humans, work on ethics research or are otherwise explicitly very interested in ethics. Similarly, ethics as a field isn’t especially well-funded, to say the least: judging by how little people are willing to allocate resources to other people figuring out ethics, it isn’t particularly important to the general public either. And so far, I haven’t seen research on ethics listed as a potential high-impact cause in effective altruism, even though the movement is about “doing good well” (absolutely a question ethics should answer) – and most of the EAs I know certainly acknowledge that ethics is still largely a mess and this phrase has no obvious rigorous definition.

Below is a list of possible reasons for this apparent prioritizing paradox. Some of them are mutually exclusive, many are compatible and could even work sort of synergistically if true, but as of now I’m not confident about how likely or significant any of these are as explanations.

A great deal of people actually are working on or motivated by figuring out questions related to ethics, just not in the context of academic philosophy. There are, and have historically been, a lot of interesting empirical questions that greatly influence how we should make ethical judgments: is there a God, what is life and does it matter, how does the human brain make decisions or create consciousness, why do things suffer or die, what kind of future scenarios are physically possible for humanity, and so on. What ought to be is fundamentally based on what is, and it’s useless, or at least probably rather inefficient, to worry about what we should do before we have any idea of what we can do (and what’s going on in the first place).

Our approximations about what one should do seem pretty strong already, and they suggest humans have more urgent things to put our minds to than solving the rest of ethics. It seems overwhelmingly likely that we’ll find things such as curing diseases, decreasing global poverty, and efficient energy production to be good ideas no matter how we end up defining ethics, so precisely what we should be doing until we hit significantly diminishing returns. Especially explains why effective altruism isn’t currently very interested in ethics research – we are pretty confident about being at least on the right tracks, and many quite uncontroversially urgent shoulds are right in front of us, so it’s probably best to address them first.

You can’t pick your own interests, and ethics just isn’t very interesting. Quite literally the boring answer: compared to sexy, prestigious and rewarding occupations in high-status science and entrepreneurship, ethics like all philosophy seems to offer a lot of frustration and uncertainty, little in terms of concrete advancements and impact. Things are thoroughly fuzzy because a great deal of arguments rely on vague-sounding stuff like intuitions instead of something empirical or quantifiable, and as a result everyone mostly argues about definitions a lot while mostly staying dirt poor because the results aren’t interesting or useful enough for anyone to be willing to pay much for.

There is no meaningful sense in which we “should” do anything, and most of the people who have a clue of anything really have simply picked up on this. This is probably my least favourite answer, not only because I don’t personally quite accept moral nihilism, but also because the reasoning sounds suspicious as an explanation for this particular problem. Many brilliant non-ethicists certainly act as though there were things that are morally better than others, often taking explicit ethical stances in difficult situations – it’s just that they’re not spending lots of their time actually advancing ethics. (Anyway, if moral nihilism is trivially true to them, they could at least bother to inform the rest of us about that convincingly enough that we’d move on to doing something productive instead of, you know, blogging about ethics.)

Our brightest minds aren’t bright enough. Ethics, though (arguably) a human construct and therefore probably accessible to at least some human minds, could just be too complex in its emergent properties after all for most or even all people to think of with sufficient clarity. The cognitive abilities it requires could just be uncommon: if, say, the empathising/systemising divide hypothesised to define major aspects of human neurodivergence turns out to be a thing, it seems plausible that doing ethics well requires a person to excel at both modes, which I suppose is pretty rare even among our brightest minds.

Politics actually is what happens when people remember the urgency of ethics. Politics is a complicated system in which diseased reasoning, dishonesty, and biases abound, but at its core it’s also a bunch of people most of whom are trying to figure out ethics and consequently put it into practice. So apparently when we attach into ethics (1) a ton of power and status to gain determined by a pretty straightforward hierarchy, (2) wages actually worth working for, and (3) incredibly strong identities and group loyalties to signal, the resulting incentives transform it into the thousand-faced abomination of almost total ineffectiveness that we usually see in politics.

Pretty much no one really wants ethics after all. So there might be a way to evaluate and coordinate interactions in a way that corresponds to the concept of morality and generally contributes to the flourishing of each of us and whatever entities we think should flourish, making moral nihilism incorrect, but this might be something people would just rather not think about or commit to due to akrasia and conflicting, egotistical desires. So when people worry about “doing the right thing” or wonder what “a good life” is, it’s usually either posturing or unproductive symptoms of cognitive dissonance within personal intuitions, not anything like a sincere expression of a need for moral guidelines.

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