This book proposes an approach for greatly reducing the acrimony, cynicism and frustration now surrounding ethical issues. It proposes that goodness and harmfulness can be evaluated in terms of being constructive or destructive in the maintenance and enhancement of abilities. The book gives arguments as to why this is a valid criterion and discusses how this criterion can be applied. In many commonplace circumstances good or harm, by this criterion, is immediately evident. In many other circumstances this is not the case, and reliance may need to be placed, temporarily, on whatever seems to be the best conventional wisdom available. Even in the latter cases, by making deliberate efforts to determine how various responses affect the abilities of various parties, a better and better basis for future decisions can be developed. The book describes how possible courses of action can be evaluated in terms of how much good they will do in accordance with the standards it sets forth. It explains how these standards can be used by persons, groups, organizations and governments to foster increasingly productive modes of interaction with each other. What emerges from the discussion is a new insight as to how persons and groups can make the most satisfying use of their own talents and abilities by persisting in efforts to do the most good.
The book portrays the augmentation, perfection and integration of individual and collective abilities as encompassing and giving a way of ordering all human needs, goals, and purposes. This all-encompassing challenge is shown to be one with which humankind and any other form of intelligent life will be faced as long as intelligent life exists. This perpetual challenge is fraught with vexation and pain but is also the source of the deepest and most enduring satisfaction attainable. To the extent that human beings fully dedicate their attention and energies to assessing and fulfilling the need for augmenting, perfecting and integrating abilities, their lives will be meaningful and purposeful, enriched and ennobled.
Meeting this challenge involves the development of capacities for making judgments which in turn requires a careful analysis and an honest sharing of life experiences. This activity itself can greatly enrich people’s lives and relieve them of feelings of isolation.
This perspective entails a significantly different understanding of rationality. For three centuries a philosophy of individualism, emerging from the Enlightenment, has gained greater and greater prominence. This philosophy has several very positive features which have brought it into favor. The American Bill of Rights stands as one of its cornerstones. It has advocated free inquiry and has been a champion against superstition, bigotry, and hereditary privilege.
Central to the present-day philosophy of individualism is a concept of self-interest and an associated conception of rationality. According to this viewpoint, it is rational for individuals to pursue their own self-interest, rational for business firms to maximize their profits, rational for nations to pursue their national interests. Individuals, businesses and nations are seen as needing to be free from arbitrary constraints so that they can pursue various experiments in living and in ways of operating and thereby can learn from experience.
The philosophy of individualism has created a more and more competitive society. The self-interest of a person, a business, or a nation has become equated with success in this competition. On a purely economic level the result has tended to be good for the winners and bad for the losers. At a deeper level, the result has often been bad for the winners also, because those who have become successful have tended to become self-indulgent, wasteful, and, in the end, self-destructive. Self-indulgence has become the mark of success. Wastefulness and self-destructiveness in world society, although less conspicuous, are still clearly evident. They principally take the forms of addictions, wasting of time, wasting of resources, ecological destructiveness, failure to adequately educate children, and failure to dispel starvation, unemployment, and lack of shelter. Although these ills have not gone unnoticed, effective countermeasures have not been brought forth.
Yet the world society is not wholly degenerate. To the extent that families, businesses, and nations, facing a hostile and competitive world, have seen their self-interest as demanding the development of their abilities, cooperation and collaboration with others, and achieving goals that will contribute to the general welfare, they have done much good. The harm that the philosophy of individualism has produced has always resulted from some pathological self-importance: sometimes self-glorification, sometimes possessiveness, sometimes a protectiveness toward the self that has produced a crippling of abilities.
The general claim that is made and defended here is that the proper concern of each individual and group is not with himself, herself, or itself but with doing the most good, where doing good is to be seen as contributing to an ecologically and politically sustainable expansion of human abilities. Much of the content of this book is concerned with explaining and exploring the implications of this concept of what constitutes doing good.
Individualism and its notion of self-interest is only one of the serious misconceptions in today’s world. Another arises on the level of day to day activities and popular culture. The popular conception of the quality of life has been distorted by a constant barrage of advertising, giving an illusion of glamour and sophistication and pandering to human weaknesses. As this book will endeavor to prove, enduring satisfaction comes not from the consumption of economic goods and services but from exercising abilities.
A third source of serious misconceptions is popular psychology. Some may have already jumped to the conclusion that what this book advocates amounts only to putting new clothes on Abraham Maslow’s “self-actualization” and other ideas of the Human Potential movement. Actually, the perspective of humanistic psychology and psychotherapy is opposed on two grounds. First, talk of a person’s “potential” is viewed as very seriously misleading. What a child, an adolescent or a young adult may accomplish in life is highly dependent on the kind and amount of help and encouragement he or she receives and is, in any case, always difficult to predict. No specifically human abilities (distinct from abilities of other primates) are “latent,” waiting to unfold like a rosebud. All are acquired through repeatedly attempted actions, through practice, and through assessment.
Second, use of the terms “self-actualization” and “self-realization” needs to be discouraged. These terms are misleading because they put an undue and harmful emphasis upon self. Persons need always to be seen in terms of their relationships, their affiliations, and their contributions to various enterprises. The development of any type of ability needs to be seen as an active partnership between a segment of a community that is learning and a segment that is helping that learning to take place. The “engine” for this learning is not psychotherapy but a process of apprenticeship, training, setting standards of excellence, and developing powers of observation and judgment.
The theory that is put forth in effect urges individuals and groups to be outward looking rather than inward looking. Even where it deals with overcoming weaknesses it encourages looking at external evidence and finding ways to produce better results rather than dispelling internal demons.
The theory presented here is a theory of ethics. Ethics is a subject that needs to be much more widely understood. As Alasdair MacIntyre has very aptly pointed out in After Virtue, the very language of ethics has, to a very great extent, lost its meaning. Even the word “ethics” itself is for many people suggestive of moralizing or self-righteousness. Many other words and phrases, such as “virtue” and “moral principle” seem to have meanings that are more rhetorical than genuine, reflecting personal bias rather than objectivity. Perhaps most importantly, the subject matter of ethics is today not taken to be what it was by Plato and Aristotle. Today it is generally thought of as differentiating between approved and disapproved behavior, particularly sexual behavior, whereas Plato and Aristotle were primarily concerned with identifying the essential characteristics of a good life and a well-ordered society.