Today, I’d like to continue the topic of ethics and morality. Don’t worry, these themes will all come together soon, and since you know me by now, you know there will be science fiction. I think ethics and morals are important concepts to understand for everybody, but knowing more about people and their motivations has really helped me to write more compelling characters. It has definitely helped me to understand what conflict arises between them, and why. Now I understand that compelling characters can be a bit of a slippery definition; I mean after all we all have our favorites. That even goes to franchises within our preferred genre: I could never really get into Star Trek, but then I’ve not found myself leaning towards Star Wars as the absolute end all either. But if they ever make a screen adaptation of the Hyperion Cantos, boy, I will FIGHT you for your ticket to opening night.
Perhaps what makes this polarization of fandom so interesting lies in the field of aretaic ethics. You’ll recall from the last installment that deontological ethics deal with the choices and actions you should make. We covered a little bit of deontology’s foil which is consequentialism. I’d like to take a look at another branch of ethical theory that deals not with what you should do but how you should be. The idea here is that if you can imagine and embody the characteristics of a good person, you will inherently make good decisions.
Supposedly learned people throughout the ages have given us list upon lists of what they believe to be the best virtues. Whether you prescribe the Nine Noble virtues or attempt to embody the virtues taught by Christ, the subject of virtue is oft debated. But before you can argue which is best, we should all agree on some definitions.
A virtue is an excellent trait of character. Keep in mind this is not a belief, although one might attempt to embody this trait due to a personal belief. Nor are virtues mere habits. The difference between a trait of character and a habit is an important one. Character traits, as we say, go all the way down to the base aspects of one’s personality; this depth of the person is where it becomes a little slippery. In our first exploration into ethics, we showed how people might act in accordance with the same ethical framework but do so from vastly different motivations. Traits of character speak to those motivations. For example, a courageous person cannot be judged as so merely because they run towards the sound of gunfire. If, however, we were to talk with that person and discuss their motivations for running towards the gunfire, and those motivations were something like knowing that there was danger and feeling they had an obligation to do something about it, then we could say that that person was courageous.
And here is where it starts to get interesting. Deep traits of character are things that we can see expressed through action and validate through discussion and examination. But humans are inherently malleable; and so, people can learn those deep traits of character deliberately. Take our previous example of a baby, now a small child. Children begin in an almost sociopathic place; they only know what they have been taught and they only value what affects them personally. But over time we can teach them about virtues we hold to be important, and through action repetition and a building up of heuristic, they will in fact come to deeply embody those virtues. Or not; sometimes they go their own way and that’s fine too…
So here we have examined the last of the three main ethical frameworks that I wanted to discuss. Deontology, the study of one’s duty and moral obligation, it’s foil of consequentialism or the end is justifying the means, and lastly what virtue should guide our actions. A quick example, and then a preview of the next discussion to follow.
For the sake of this example, we will not attempt to offer a dilemma. Instead, our example is a simple one; a person says they will do a thing, and then follows through and does that thing exactly as they have promised. Now most people would agree that this is a good act. Or a right act, depending on how you want to cage your terms. But why?
A deontologist would say that that person was acting in accordance with the rules of the society in which they live; everybody is obligated to do what they promised to do because that is a society in which we live. a consequentialist would argue that if everybody followed through on everything that they promised to do, then the total amount of good in the system would be maximized. Therefore, the ends of maximizing good justify the means. And finally, our aretaic ethicist would say that that person exhibited the traits of an honorable person, and they would point to honor as a noble virtue to which we should all aspire.
So that example was relatively straightforward; all three different ethical frameworks resulted in the same conclusion. But what happens when it’s not quite so easy? What happens when somebody uses consequentialism to justify an action that is against the generally accepted virtues of a society? Well then you can get some pretty spectacular conflict. In our next installment, we’re going to be looking at the ethical implications embodied in David Brin’s Uplift universe. We’ll look at some different ways to justify the actions he describes, and then perhaps dive into both sides of an argument over Brin’s egg-cellent universe building. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and we’ll see you for the thrilling conclusion!