INTRODUCTION

  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.

         

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