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Theoretical Ethics

What May We Do? An Evolutionary Ethical Theory
of Social Risks and Opportunities

Hermann Rampacher
Gesellschaft für Informatik, Bonn, Germany

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ABSTRACT: Social standards guide us in what to do and what to refrain from doing. But can social — moral or legal — standards be trusted? This paper presents an evolutionary ethical theory that generates trustworthy ethical norms. Each norm is assigned a demonstrable risk, called an ethical risk, that depends on both human behavior and danger to the survival of society. The assigned risk is minimal if and only if everybody obeys the norm. The higher the risk assigned to a norm, the higher the norm’s rank (an empirical quantity depending on the evolutionary status of society). An ordered finite set of ethical risks and ethical norms allows the settlement of ethical problems arising in society. Subsets of existing moral and legal standards all over the world are compatible with norms being elements of these ordered finite sets of ethical norms. Like all standards, ethical norms are often violated. A single violated norm suffices to activate correlations between risks, resulting in an ethical conflict. The more often a high-ranking norm is violated, the poorer the society in question. Ethical conflicts can be resolved by responsible persons or groups advancing higher-ranking norms involved in optimization at the expense of lower-ranking norms. Examples are given to support the theory.

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"Moral predigen ist leicht, Moral begründen schwer" (Arthur Schopenhauer)

I. The Primacy of an Empirical Ethic of Risks

In the West, ever fewer people respect moral standards because the influence of religion is decreasing rapidly. In addition philosophical ethics, "inventing right and wrong" [Mackie], is unable to contribute essentially to the trustability of moral norms, due to its "chaos of scholarly opinions" [Patzig 80, p. 99]. Consequently even binding legal norms are often obeyed only for fear of legal sanctions. Hence in the western world tendencies to violence are rising, corruption [iwd, p.8] is on the increase. And in Germany, for example, a third of all marriages break up, the birth rate is low, the abortion rate is high and every third household consists of a single person [Handelsblatt]. Is the West, as East Asian critics smugly say, a group of "newly decaying countries" [Wickert, p.19]?

If this reproach is right, the decay of a specific society should be avoided by appropriate behaviour patterns. Some of them may be identified already by a "thought experiment:" If violence, theft or deception are the rule, people and their society go to ruin; the situation is stabilised when everyone helps each other, for then violence or deception are no longer means of survival. Ethics as a theory of rightful dealings involves empirical research on behaviourally conditioned "ethical risks," which may depend on the technological level of a society. Each of these ethical risks jeopardizes the survival both of individual citizens and their society as a whole. An ethical risk is a quantity with a certain magnitude; with each ethical risk goes an "ethical norm" which is the condition for the minimisation of that particular risk. Unfortunately risks are seldom independent from one another. So only the simultaneous observance of various ethical norms minimises all essential collective and individual survival risks. If only a single ethical norm—e.g. the norm not to kill—is violated, there is no longer an overall collective and individual risk minimisation: an ethical conflict arises. The more common such ethical conflicts and the bigger the risks involved, the more uncertain becomes the internal and the social peace of a society and its "peace with nature" [Meyer-Abich]. The primacy in practice of rightful dealing is due neither to traditional moral standards nor to actual law, but solely to an ethics based on facts, namely empirically demonstrable risks.

II. First Approaches to an Empirical Ethic of Risks

The idea of linking demonstrable risks with behavioural norms and of understanding risks and norms as basic elements in an empirical ethic of risks is not to be found in the philosophical literature [Gethmann, Hoerster, Kambartel, Schrader].

For Socrates, whatever contributes to the risk of collapse of the state, if everyone were to do it, was forbidden [Plato, p. 48]. Conversely, according to Marcus Aurelius, whatever does not damage the state does not damage its citizens either [Marc Aurel p. 60]; whatever supports the individual also on average helps everyone else, according to the emperor [Marc Aurel, p. 80]. Aristotle explored motives and behaviour patterns in his Nichomachean Ethics. However, his ethic of "virtues" does not achieve mathematical clarity and does not explain, for example, why social norms should always be followed unconditionally.

Two thousand years later, Hume likewise restricted his empirism to the obervation of human behaviour [Hume, pp.—10]. Bentham took up Hume's new idea that only the distinction between pleasure and pain made ethics possible [Hume, p. 80] and transformed Hume's supposition into a mathematical postulate: generate the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number of people [Bentham, pp. 56-57, 79-82]. Thus he fulfilled Kant's requirement that without a "calculus" there could be no science [Vorlaender, p. 170]. Mill extended Bentham's principle to all living beings [Mill, p. 21]. For Bentham and Mill, pleasure and pain, both subjective feelings but measurable statistical quantities [Bentham, p. 79], are two sides of the same coin. For Popper, by contrast, only the minimisation of the pain people suffer can guide politics [Popper, pp. 289-290, 362]. The "Popperian programme" of minimising suffering could easily have been developed further in ethics and politics, but this was not done. Thus philosophical ethics is helpless in the face of new scientific and technical risks [Gadamer, p. 20] and conflicts [Beck, p. 25].

III. Linear Ethic of Risks: Ethical Risks and Ethical Norms

A. Societies, Ethical Risks and the Ranking of Ethical Norms

A society in the ethic of risks is defined as an evolutionary complex social system which organises itself in space and time on our planet in order to minimise all ethical risks to itself and to its members. The rules of conduct controlling these societies are the ethical norms. At the center of the ethic of risks lie right or wrong acts rather than persons, their genetic identity, their motives, and their feelings.

Every risk is as a product of its risk factor and its probability of occurrence a quantity. The greater the social expenditure—generally dependent on the technological level of the society—needed to restore the original state after the occurrence of the ethical risk in question, the greater the social damage indicated by the risk factor.

The greater the risk factor, the higher the rank of the corresponding ethical norm. Hence, ethical norms can be ranked.

B. Avoidable Risks and Strong Norms

Avoidable ethical risks are associated exclusively with well-defined two-person interactions which clearly rise the survival risk of society if everyone were to behave in this manner. Every avoidable ethical risk is strictly forbidden by a "strong ethical norm." If everyone follows this norm, the risk disappears. For example, if no-one kills, tortures, aborts, cheats, or steals or destroys property, the corresponding ethical risks no longer exist. Every strong norm is easy to follow for most people; once individual motivation and feelings are left out of the picture, a requirement to refrain from doing something to someone is generally easier to follow than a prescription for action not least because the latter may well involve a skill which one does not process.

In view of the irreversibility of death, the rank of the prohibition on killing exceeds all limits. Another example: Prohibitions of violence against the class of disabled people generally have higher rank than prohibitions of identical violence against the class of healthy people, because disabled people who are injured in the same way as healthy people generally require greater medical effort to restore them to their original condition than healthy people who are injured.

C. Bounded Ethical Risks and Weak Ethical Norms

Ethical risks are seen as bounded when they are impossible to eliminate entirely. If a well-defined two-person interaction takes place between all possible such partners in a society and has the effect of clearly reducing the survival risks of that society, then it is associated with a weak ethical norm. An opportunity of sustainable individual or collective survival exists only, if a certain subset of weak ethical norms will be observed.

Every weak ethical norm presupposes specific skills for its successful application; hence there are many classes of human beings unable to observe a weak norm. For example, someone who seeks to help a frail person can fail due to weakness or lack of practice. Risk minimisation requires everyone to develop his or her abilities as far as possible and to do their best to apply the skills thus acquired to help those who are less able. The fulfillment of weak norms means among other things that every skilled person has the duty to develop and use his and her skills to the utmost in fair competition with others. There can be no solidarity and evolutionary improvement of solidarity in any society without fair competition.

D. Basic Risks and Basic Norms

All ethical risks that can be described in terms of acts or of abstention from action concerning any two persons in a society form the class of "basic risks." The "basic norms" associated with them protect—when everyone follows them—each citizen as well as the society as whole: if everyone helps each other, this benefits both the citizens and their society. In a society where everyone obeys all basic norms the human dignity of each individual is guaranteed. Obviously basic norms often go together with moral standards.

E. Weak Norms as Rules for Dealing with Technology

In modern societies the highest risks go with neglected opportunities of un-done applications of technologies. Whatever reliably reduces survival risks for everyone which go with an realized or with an un-done technical application is mandated by weak norms. This is because the applications of technologies—as almost all actions—may result in unintended and unpredictable consequences.

A subset of the most important weak norms today calls for sustainable resource use. For example, regenerative and environmentally friendly solar or wind energy is deemed to be preferable to energy from such nonregenerative and environmentally damaging sources as coal, oil or nuclear fuels.

F. The "Microethics" Empirical Research Program

The "Microethics" programme is designed to investigate strong and weak norms together with the corresponding risk factors and risks. Microethics forms the prescriptive component of our empiric ethic of risks.

"A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls [Rawls 79] was described by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich [SZ 94], as important enough to affect the entire intellectual world. Rawls' theory has similarities with our empirical ethic of risks, which could be called "A Theory of Freedom:" the lower the ethical risks through simultaneous following of all ethical norms, the greater the average scope of possible actions and thus the opportunities of life for all. Following Rawls, vocal citizens evaluate behavioural norms in rational discourse behind a "veil of ignorance." The evaluation is subject to the overarching principle of "justice as fairness:" those norms apply which are accepted as fair in the discourse. In our empirical ethic of risks by contrast, ethical risks and norms arise from research results, not from ethical discourse.

G. Moralities, Ethics and Their Representation

Suitably chosen ethical basic norms, finite in number and monotonically ordered by their rank, form ordered representations which we define as "moralities." Finite numbers of ethical norms, monotonically ordered by their rank, form ordered representations of ethics which we define as an "ethic" of the socienty. Every society and above all every civilisation has its own morality and its own ethics. Basic norms are generally globally applicable and make up a global morality, but their ranks are mostly dependent on the scientific and technical level of societies or civilisations.

Technical systems achieve their respective purpose only when all the relevant natural laws are followed simultaneously. "Nature will only be conquered by he who obeys her" [Bacon, p. 65]. The same is true for societies: they achieve risk minimisation only if all norms of an ordered representation of its ethics are observed. But there is an important difference between nature and society: Those who ignore a natural law harm themselves, those who disobey an ethical norm frequently benefit themselves as long as their offence remains undiscovered and thus no social sanction invalidates what they have achieved.

H. The "Statistical Macroethics" Research Program

The macroethical social state is described by a minimal finite set of state parameters. Each parameter is associated with an ethical risk factor and an ethical norm. The total ethical risk of a society is minimised (linearily) by following all the ethical norms associated with the social state parameters simultaneously. Statistical macroethics comprises the descriptive components of the research programme of the empirical ethic of risks. The main purpose of macroethics is the definition and the measurement of "metrically scaled ethical targets" together with their corresponding figures actually achieved for societies.

I. Some Key Ethical Quantities for Societies

In Statistical Macroethics existing societies may be characterised by the magnitude of "key quantities" as metrically scaled ethical targets such as internal or social peace. A society is defined as internally more peaceful (and more just), the lower the rank of the first strong basic norm in an ordered representation of its morality that is no longer followed by the great majority of its citizens or social groups provided of course the higher-ranking norms are repected. For example the higher the amount of brute force that reigns among citizens and between citizens and their government, the less peaceful the society. The criminal statistics of a country is obviously an indication of internal peace.

A society is defined as socially more peaceful (and socially more just), the lower the rank of the first basic norm in an ordered representation of its morality that is no longer followed by the great majority of its citizens or social groups with the proviso already mentioned. Hence, internal or social peace of societies are key statistical ethical quantities and may be measured or calculated. Both the simple scaled quantity of the social peace or social justice of a society might be the rank of the first ethical norm in an ordered representation of its morality that is no longer followed by the great majority of its citizens.

The "Ten Commandments" from the Bible do not represent a morality, as they do not include a weak norm on universal help. However, the Christian commandment to love one's neighbour may be applied as a norm-generating principle. The weak norms generated can be used to represent a morality of a civilisation.

A metrically scaled target named "freedom" of a society might be the rank of the first ethical norm in an ordered representation of its ethic that is no longer observed by the great majority of its citizens or social groups. Both for the definition and the achievement of freedom as a quantity, peaceful interaction with nature and risk minimisation in technology and economics play a decisive role. Consider for example the freedoms that women enjoy through birth control or that all humans have as a result of the technical mastery of flight.

Yet peace, social peace and freedom arising from technical evolution all carry a cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch , or, as Helmut Schmidt put it: There are no human rights without human duties [Schmidt].

Given two societies A and B at the same scientific and technological level, A is freer according to our definition of freedom if both the average freedom of the society as a whole and the specific freedoms of its weakest members—such as children, disabled, sick, or retired people—is higher in A than in B.

"Civil societies" [Dahrendorf 92] or "liberal societies" [Rawls 92] such as of Canada, England, Holland, or Luxemburg are closer to the ideal of a free society than, for example, the "state centered societies" of France, Sweden, and Germany [Baring, p. 82-83].

A society is defined as progressive, when both the number of its risk factors and the proportion of the ranked norms belonging to these risk factors that are autonomously respected increase over time. One practical consequence of our definition of progressive societies is this: Without a solution to the current political problems of lack of innovation, unemployment or the 'pension bomb', a Western society can hardly qualify as progressive.

J. Ethics without Moral Values

In philosophical ethics, moral norms are often "deduced" from human values [Mackie, p. 53]. Where these values come from and how they can be grounded remains open. In the ethic of risks, norms are coupled with risks as statistical quantities, with facts, so norms have objective meaning as minimisation conditions for ethical risks. Subsets of ethical norms that intentionally belong together in an ordered representation of the ethics of a civilisation may be classified under general concepts, and these in turn with traditional human values or—for subsets of norms with highest rank—with "basic values" or "basic rights." Thus one observes the basic human value of tolerance when, for example, one respects freedom of opinion or religion as well as all other ways of life that differ from one's own, just so long as they are compatible with the norms of an ordered representation of ethics. On the other hand, "tolerance" of unethical behaviour is always wrong, for such behaviour—if practised by all—leads to chaos. The empirical ethic of risks is not based on traditional ethical values as taught by the churches or some philosophers but allows these values to be derived. It is an ethics of empirically founded ethical norms rather than traditional values.

IV. Research Program for a Normative Empirical Ethic of Risks

A. The Evolution from Physics and from Ethics

From the "Baconian research program" for physics with engineering applications one can establish a research programme for ethics with applications in law and politics. It could bear Popper's name, for Popper saw the minimisation of suffering as the foundation for politics. We transform the Baconian into the Popperian programme when we replace the principle of causality by the final principle of risk minimisation. Bacon wrote: "Scientia et potentia humana in idem coincidunt, quia ignoratio causae destituit effectum. Natura enim non nisi perendo vincitur; et quod in contemplatione instar causae est, id in operatione instar regulae est" [Bacon p. 80]. Transcribed into the language of risk, this becomes: Knowledge and human ability complement each other insofar as ignorance allows one to fail to see the risk of an action. Society can be conquered only by obedience; whatever is seen as a risk, in political action serves as a rule.

Physical theories are empirical, causal and mathematisable, and they are always predictive; precisely this allows them to be applied successfully in technology. Physical theories—and thus technology too—develop by evolution: new theories reproduce the laws of their predecessors and enable the derivation of further, often technologically applicable natural laws. Physical knowledge grows cumulatively, and technology optimises evermore free space for humans. Generations of physicists and engineers have worked on a single edifice. Philosophers by contrast demolish the foundations laid down by their predecessors in order to replace them with their own, and this game repeats itself from generation to generation.

"The more we can do, the less we should do" [Eigen, p. 30], said the Nobel prize winner for chemistry Manfred Eigen. What in particular we should or should not do is investigated in the Popperian programme of minimisation of ethical risks.

Every new theory of ethical risks reproduces with the help of the principle of risk minimisation the norms of its predecessor and allows the derivation of additional ethical norms. Just as the laws of aerodynamics alone as design rules for aircrafts were not enough for people to conquer the air, so too the game rules forbidding violence cannot by themselves open the way to optimal social peace. Only when one takes into account not only the laws of aerodynamics but also the physical laws governing materials can one build an aeroplane whose wings can withstand the dynamics of flight. Similarly, all the norms of an ordered representation of ethics must be respected in order to realise a society's required social state.

The empirical ethic of risks may be identified in some respect with Mill's "social physics." The results from the research programme of the empirical ethic of risks can be applied in engineering fashion, but only when the over-whelming majority of a society autonomously conform to all ethical norms; only then does the ethic take on a predictive character; an example are traffic rules, which take on a predictive charakter and work only, if—almost all—people obey them autonomously.

Ethical risks, norms, and key quantities are oriented exclusively to facts. This is seldom the case for the practice of traditional morality, of politics, and of business, where common opinions about facts often replace the facts themselves.

B. Ethics and Responsibility

Politics prompted Max Weber to replace the rigid observance of moral norms, the "ethic of sentiment," by an "ethic of responsibility" [Weber 71]. Later, Hans Jonas based his "ethics for technological civilisation" on the "principle of responsibility" [Jonas 79]. Persons and social groups bear responsibility [Lenk, p. 61]:

  • for "areas of responsibility" that extend as far in space and time as their power or knowledge,
  • for all the life involved,
  • before an instance,
  • before an ethical or a legal system of norms.

Responsibility presupposes the normative evaluation of both the act itself and its foreseeable consequences. [Nida-Rümelin 95].

V. Nonlinear Empirical Ethic of Risks: Ethical Conflicts

A. Free and Bound State Parameters

There are free and bound social state parameters. At least one social state parameter is bound in any social state of risk. As soon after the appearance of an ethical conflict as only higher risks can be minimised, free parameters are transformed into bound ones. Those responsible no longer have a free choice of means for resolving the ethical conflict.

Social states, social state parameters, and transformation probabilities in social states where not all norms continue to be followed describe the reality of a society and its—short-term—dynamic development, hence for example its reformability as ethical key quantity.

To predict the evolution of a society one must take account of the spatio-temporal distribution and social layering of ethical conflicts, and often also their global implications. The methods of nonlinear dynamics, of synergetics, of computer simulation or of game theory may be employed to investigate social stability.

B. Ground state and Risk States of a Society

The social state of lowest risk of a society is its ground state. The social ground state is the state of highest social order: highest internal peace, highest social peace, and highest freedom; but it is as unattainable as the absolute zero of temperature. All other social states are risk states. The social ground state is the ethical ideal state of a society and is described by finitely many social state parameters. In this state all social state parameters are free, the survival risks for both citizens and the society as a whole are minimal.

Every society has its own ground state and its own risk states, which are labelled by their bound state parameters. The opportunities and risks of the "digital revolution" and of nuclear or genetic technology, or such pure risks as land mines, the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole and the "population bomb," determine our life but not that of the ancient Romans.

C. Ethical Conflicts

Collective and individual welfare coincide precisely in the social ground state. Any ethical conflict transforms it into a social risk state and activates previously latent correlations between ethical riskfactors. Hence, the linear approximation becomes inadequate and the welfare of the society as a whole drifts apart from that of its single citizens. In war, for example, all citizens must be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their country.

The more that serious ethical conflicts shake a society at a particular time, the more high-risk states exist with bound state parameters of high rank.

Normative conflicts—in contrast to ethical ones—are conflicts between different systems of norms that exist in one and the same society. They characterise pluralistic societies [Berger, pp. 581-582] and civilisations. For example, the new abortion law in Germany has led to a collision between traditional morality founded on religion and the newly applicable legal norms.

The linear minimisation of total ethical risk of a society by the isolated minimisation of individual ethical risks fails either locally or at a particular time, when only a single ethical norm is violated. The resulting ethical conflict is more serious, the higher the rank of the violated norm. For example, if a man in Germany in 1945 could only save his family from freezing by stealing coal, he was forced either to accept the death of his loved ones or to steal; however, theft violates a norm of lower rank than that associated with death caused by failure to offer help. Cardinal Frings, Cologne, solved this ethical conflict in a practical way by giving believers permission to steal coal.

The larger the highest-ranking bound state parameter of a society, the more it is threatened by chaotic developments. For example neglecting education, science, research and innovation, or tolerating extreme inequalities of wealth, or unemployment in a western country leeds to a unstable society. Scarcity also generates ethical conflicts: mass poverty or ignorance. Ethical conflicts may be solved using the principle of "tolerance and intervention:"

Whoever, in all of his or her areas of responsibility, intervenes to minimise the rank of the lowest state parameter that is still bound, in all cases behaves rightly.

The principle of tolerance and intervention is always applicable and generalises Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law" [Kant, p. 140]. The higher the power for intervention and the higher the knowledge what to do, the higher the responsibility.

For interactive relations between two systems A and B, the minimisation of total ethical risk requires the ranks of relevant norms that protect B to be reduced against the ranks of the corresponding norms that protect A, if B acts so as to break norms. Thus acts of aggression trigger reduction in the ranks of norms that protect the aggressor or the attacking countries compared with those of the victim. Responsible authorities in politics, for example, must break ethical norms of lower rank in an ethical conflict in order to ensure the implementation of norms of higher rank. This procedure may be compared to the operation of a surgeon who must remove a minimum of healthy tissue in order to save life.

D. Some Examples of Duties

Everyone has a duty to respect prohibitory norms strictly so long as this does not result in ethical conflict. Prohibitory norms protect the dignity of all human beings, irrespective of their race, religion, social status, age, sex, nationality, as far they do not violate ethical norms; the class of unborn children is protected as well, as long as this does not result in ethical conflict, because an embryo is not able to violate any ethical norm. Mandatory norms, by contrast, presuppose skills that not all classes of acting persons or groups possess; they can never be followed strictly by everyone.

Ethical norms are more resistant to abuse than legal norms, as shown by the example of the non-ethical "Nuernberg laws" in Nazi Germany. In cases of conflict between moral standards compatible with ethical norms, and legal norms, people should obey the moral rather than the legal norms in their society.

People who do not give priority to ethical norms—and those moral or legal norms that are compatible with them—are guilty in the ethical sense of derelicting their duty. Obviously a person can only be guilty, if he oder her is able to decide autonomously: a person which acts as an automate by definition cannot be guilty. The political system in a just or social just society ensures that any ethical norms not followed by an overwhelming majority of people are transformed into legal norms and enforced by means of incentives or, if necessary, penalties. Any guilt a person thereby incurs may be discharged precisely by their doing their best to compensate for the social damage caused by their improper behaviour. Punitive penalties do not contribute to compensation and are therefore not justifiable in the ethic of risks. Penal law has instead the task of determining how the social damage caused by the guilty party's norm-violating behaviour may be repaired or compensated—at least in part.

If social peace (ethical key quantity) is greater in an opposing country, if its citizens are freer (ethical key quantity) than in one's own, pacifism is a duty; otherwise, in the event of a war of aggression, citizens have a duty to devote their lives to securing the future of their own country.

E. What May We Do?

We may do anything, so long as we do not violate a single ethical norm or moral standard compatible with that norm. When in our personal area of responsibility an ethical norm is not followed—whoever may be at fault—we are to ensure implementation of higher-ranking norms by a minimal intervention at the expense of lower-ranking norms. Ethical norms can be trusted because they go always with clear facts.

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Bibliography (Publications are in German)

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