The three scopes of morality
- Egoism. Good is what increases my well-being.
- Tribalism. Good is what increases my group’s well-being. This group may be, say, a clan, a team, a community, a nation, or an ethnicity.
- Utilitarianism. Good is what increases global well-being. This includes all conscious beings. (As long as we know of no sentient life forms beyond our globe, ‘global well-being’ and ‘universal well-being’ refer to the same set of entities and are thus synonymous.)
Question. How do you transition from one moral scope into the next?
From egoism to tribalism
Principle 1. You increase your own well-being by increasing your group’s well-being.
Explanation. More often than not and especially in the long term, what makes your tribesmen happy will also make you happy, even if it sometimes demands personal sacrifices. This is due to the human need for social cooperation and evolved psychological mechanisms including pride, honor, loyalty, conscience, guilt, love, empathy, and compassion. These mechanisms, plus genetic interests, bridge the gap between egoism and tribalism.
Examples. (1) If you sacrifice blood, sweat, and time for your team’s mission, you will gain meaning and a sense of belonging. (2) If you are generous to fellow countrymen in need, you will feel better and more connected. (3) If you help an old lady across the street, you will feel happier and more social afterwards. (4) If you smile at women and compliment them genuinely, you will get laid more frequently.
Comment. Kindness, a grounded character strength, is not to be confused with groveling, emasculated niceness. To better understand this principle, you can study the science of kindness (e.g., Otake et al., 2007) to gain knowledge and practice loving-kindness meditation to gain wisdom about how self-love and benevolence are connected.
From tribalism to utilitarianism
Principle 2. If different rights or value systems clash, you can calculate their respective effects on global well-being.1
Explanation. A value system is a group’s moral heuristic to increase its well-being; rights are but verbalizations of a value system. Utilitarianism is a meta-morality that helps us to decide between such heuristics, between conflicting rights and value systems. Ideally based on scientific models about what will likely maximize global well-being, utilitarianism is objective in the sense that it is free from personal and tribal biases.
Examples. (1) The right to life verbalizes the value of human life, whereas the right to choose verbalizes the value of human autonomy; if these rights clash, as they do in the abortion debate, utilitarianism can help us to move the discussion forward. (2) The right to equal opportunity verbalizes the value of economic fairness, whereas the right to own property verbalizes the value of economic freedom; if these rights clash, as they do in political debates, utilitarianism can help us to move the discussion forward. (3) The right to mobility verbalizes the value of international freedom, whereas the right to difference verbalizes the value of national freedom; if these rights clash, as they do in the migration debate, utilitarianism can help us to move the discussion forward.
Comment. Calling something a ‘right’ does not make your argument objective. It merely rationalizes your personally or tribally biased value system. While there may not be a metaphysical duty to apply the universal principle of maximizing global well-being, you must adopt utilitarianism if you want to have an objective, evidence-based discussion. Why utilitarianism?2 Because everybody is ultimately interested in well-being. All rights and values are heuristics to increase well-being. If you believe they are metaphysical duties, we cannot have a rational discussion. Lastly, we will also fail to have a rational discussion if we forbid any group to join it, even if that group consists of neo-Nazis, racists, sexists, extremists, or whatever fits your stereotype of an ‘evil’ person; if your prejudice holds true, they will only embarrass themselves in the discussion anyway.
Question. Should you be a selfish egoist, a social tribalist, or an ethical utilitarian?
Answer 1. According to the first principle and unless you are a psychopath, you will live a happier life if you are kind to the people around you. The issue is not what you ‘should’ do, but rather what you want to do once you know how your actions affect your well-being. Your enlightened self-interest guides you to doing your True Will.
Answer 2. According to the second principle, your group will benefit from utilitarian thinking if it wants to cooperate with another group whose value system differs from that of your group. Every communal, national, and international problem requires cooperation between groups (for example, between families, communities, and nations, respectively). Still, whether you want to adopt the global perspective of utilitarianism for your everyday personal decisions will strongly depend on your social identities and aspirations. For example, you may ask yourself, “How highly do the people whose respect you desire value objectivity and universality?” In addition to social influences, your subjective experience of moral pride will affect your decision about, say, how much money to donate to charity.
Comment. In any case, using the word ‘should’ here seems futile. Let’s stay non-judgmental, shall we?
- Edit: Or human well-being.
- Edit: The following point about rational discussions explains why humanism, not why utilitarianism. Hence, every instance of ‘utilitarianism’ in this blog post should be replaced with ‘humanism’ and every instance of ‘global well-being’ with ‘human well-being’. Otherwise, the argument doesn’t work.