People: are they good or bad? It’s a difficult question to answer, and that’s because it involves the less-than-straightforward job of defining what “good” and “bad” mean. You might think you know what those words mean, but you don’t. The answer to the question of what those words mean has been raging for literal millennia. In double fact, the area of study devoted to answering that question has its own name: ETHICS.

And as someone who can barely remember an ounce of the eight weeks or so they did on ethics to scrape a 2.1 at university, let me tell you something. I don’t know either!

Well, that’s not entirely true. I subscribe to a widely unpopular meta-ethical view called emotivism. Emotivism basically says that ethical statements are just expressions of how we feel about things. So “murder is wrong” is just us saying “ewww murder!” in different language. I like emotivism because it is simple. It doesn’t get caught up in knots or impossible dilemmas. And it allows you to deny moral realism (that ethical statements are talking about some real features of the world).

I haven’t thought about ethics for a long time. But with everything going on in the world right now, I thought it could be an interesting exercise to apply some ethical analysis. My conclusion (spoiler alert) – there’s a fundamental flaw in the moral systems that seem to underpin our society. Namely, selfishness arising from individualism. And this flaw is severe enough to threaten the very social contract of society itself!

But there’s a lot to unpack there. So let’s take it one step at a time.

Two answers to the question of ‘good’: deontological ethics and consequentialism

Let’s return to our original discussion of what “good” and “bad” mean. We initially proposed it in terms of people, but typically the question is formed in terms of actions. “Is doing X bad, or wrong?” You might then conclude that people who do bad actions are bad people, but let’s save that thought for a moment.

Let’s start with deontological ethics

When looking at actions, there are two common ways to say if they are good or bad. The first is the deontological approach, which says that an action just is good or bad. And there are a few ways of justifying this. Maybe God has commanded it (the Ten Commandments are an example of this).

The philosopher Kant is famous for his “categorical imperative” approach. That’s a bit too complicated to explain in one blog post. But you can just assume that “categorical = applies in all cases” and “imperative = you must do”. The takeaway line is: act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Example: let’s say we were to act on a maxim that stated: “it is ok to borrow money without intending to pay it back.” Would we will that this act should become the universal law? Of course not. Otherwise, nobody would ever lend each other money. So that’s a bad action, and we should avoid bad faith borrowing. Ok, that’s Kant in a nutshell.

Introducing: consequentialism

The other approach to ethics is to look at the consequences of an action instead of the action itself. Conveniently, this is called consequentialism. It’s pretty easy to understand, and is often stated as “the ends justify the means”. So, good consequences = good action. Right?

Not so fast! A lot of people seem to think this is the end of it. Even the epitome of logic, Mr Spock, thinks this, stating in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “That is wise. In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

I hate to say it, but Spock is wrong. Logic does not dictate anything, by itself. Logic is just a method. It’s a technique of parsing propositions that guarantees truth preservation. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like a recipe. Following it means you’ll always make a cake, but the recipe itself doesn’t guarantee the cake will be any good. It depends on the ingredients you put in.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is a value proposition. Perhaps Spock has already determined this from some prior propositions, but he hasn’t shown his working. And I think all ethicists would be very interested to hear how he reached this conclusion. It’s certainly not from “logic” alone.

To illustrate my point, imagine a society in which our core value is “the individual is most important.” We hold this so firmly that self-sacrifice, even to save countless more lives, is seen as the gravest sin. This isn’t a logically impossible situation. Input this value into our logic recipe, and you’d get the reverse outcome, with Spock swiftly making his way to the nearest escape pod.

Let’s return to consequentialism. Remember, consequentialism judges outcomes on their consequences only. It lets us justify things like murder or torture in the name of the greater good. We just need to be clear on what this greater good is.

There’s been a few good stabs at answering this question. Notably, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued for a kind of pleasure principle. He developed a scientific system called the hedonic calculus which tried to quantify how much pleasure an action would bring. And so we judge actions as good which we can show would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Yeah, it’s kinda wild.

Utilitarianism: the best form of consequentialism?

The later, and better, philosopher John Stuart Mill tidied up Bentham’s ideas with a more fleshed out theory called utilitarianism. Here, it’s not pleasure that we seek to maximise, but some broader sense of well-being and happiness. You can kind of take this how you want. And it works. Shooting a terrorist before he blows up a school is a good act because it maximises the amount of utility for all involved. (Except maybe the terrorist, but he only has a minority interest in the outcome).

Consequentialism is the easier-to-understand approach of ethics, and probably more closely resembles how we think about actions in real life. But what happens when we try to develop it into a practical system of morals for a society? Well… questions emerge.

Act vs Rule Utilitarianism

For one, utilitarians disagree about how we might make use of such a system. We can’t, after all, know the full consequences of an action before we take it. And even a ‘best guess’ might mean weighing up a load of pros and cons. This so-called ‘act utilitarianism’ suffers then from analysis paralysis. We can’t ask people to start doing extensive cost-benefit analyses before they do anything. They just won’t have it.

Also, judging actions solely on their benefits has some rather nasty potential outcomes. Is gang violence justified if 9/10 participants are happier as a result? Let’s not get into this, though.

Instead, a very popular way around this is something called rule utilitarianism. This theory formulates rules that lead to the greatest amount of good if everyone follows them. The classic example is traffic laws. We have rules that say “stop at red lights” and “go clockwise around roundabouts”. If everyone follows these rules, everyone enjoys the best outcome.

Aha, but wait! As any driver will tell you, stopping at red lights when there’s nothing crossing is annoying and pointless. In some individual cases, following the rule will have a worse consequence than not following it. Uh-oh! That’s the price you pay for convenience, we suppose.

But it’s worse than that. This one flaw – the individual ‘edge case’ is incredibly serious. And it means that rule utilitarianism, and perhaps, therefore, all systems of law, have a weakness. Namely: what happens when individuals recognise that the rule doesn’t benefit them.

The Trolley Problem(s)

Here’s an interesting philosophical take that came from, of all places, 4Chan this year.

Let’s translate this into the language of rule utilitarianism. “Always return your shopping trolley” is the rule. If everyone followed this rule, the greatest amount of good would result (convenience for future shoppers). BUT, in individual cases, it doesn’t have that consequence. It doesn’t make me any better off to return my trolley (it actually inconveniences me). And the loss of a single trolley to the car park is no huge loss to society.

As an honest member of society, what should I do? The rule utilitarian seems to suggest that I should always return the trolley, even though it makes me worse off for not much gain. And to them you might well say, Well, why should I?

This exposes the flaw again. Being a ‘good citizen’ (let’s use that as shorthand for rule-follower) gains you nothing. And if we assume that all members of society are rational agents that will act in their self-interest, we shouldn’t expect this rule to be effective.

Counter: but the individual does gain! They gain access to a clean car park and conveniently placed trolleys. So they should follow the rules to perpetuate this system. Counter-counter: this system perpetuates regardless of whether the individual engages with it! Yes, a mass refusal to co-operate causes systemic failure, but an individual can disengage without consequence.

Note that supermarkets typically work around this by making you deposit £1 to take a trolley. So you’re incentivised to return the trolley, on the basis that the time it costs you is less than the cost of £1. Would Bill Gates be so quick to return his trolley then?

A famous thought experiment in ethics is also called the trolley problem. In this, we imagine a tram going down a track, where it is about to hit five people. We somehow have access to a switch on the track where we can divert the tram onto another path, where it will only hit one person. What do you do?

Consequentialists, and most people, will tell you that you should pull the lever. Saving five lives is worth the cost of one, they say. I’ve always considered this a horrific response, and I had a bit of a difficult time convincing an ethics professor of this during my uni interview. (Look up the ‘dirty hands’ objection if you’re interested in where this discussion leads).

Here’s the classic trolley problem restated with our modern trolley example:

What does this all boil down to? Well, when faced with the question of “should you do the right thing?” It seems hard to find a good reason to answer “yes”. And that brings us to Coronavirus.

Social responsibility vs individualism in the age of Coronavirus

During the 2020 UK lockdown for coronavirus, Boris Johnson gave the nation a simple rule to follow: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

The “stay at home” bit is the key one here. That’s a rule, formulated such that it has the best outcome (the other two bits) if followed by everyone. This means all the individuals in the society paying a cost – namely their personal freedom, even though they might not personally see the benefit. After all, not everyone would get coronavirus, and of those, not everyone would get sick or die from it. Johnson was essentially asking us all to be good and return our trolleys.

And did we? How did this case study of rule utilitarianism turn out in practice? For the most part, it kind of worked. A lot of people curtailed their personal freedom and stopped going out. I barely left the flat for about two months, and even then only for essential reasons such as food and medicine. Wahey, gold star for me.

But not everyone did. Just looking out my window, I could see people outside for clearly non-essential reasons. People were sunbathing, sitting by the river, reading. And the news blasted us with examples of garden and street parties where people would gather, almost entirely disregarding the social distancing guidelines.

Why would they do this? Were they stupid, or did they think the rules somehow didn’t apply to them? It seems to me that the latter must be true. And that’s because although we live in a society that uses rule utilitarianism as its moral/legal system, as individuals, we obey our self-interest.

Dominic Cummings and the issue of mugs

Government advisor Dominic Cummings demonstrably broke the rules by going on an unnecessary trip to a beautiful castle on his wife’s birthday to test his eyesight. He did not “stay at home.” But he justified it to himself, and later to the British public, on the ground that it was the right thing to do in his circumstances.

But personal circumstances aren’t supposed to matter when we have rules. Lots of good citizens had also been in challenging situations but opted to follow the rules and just pay the cost. And if he can ignore the rules, why can’t we?

A word a lot of people have used to describe the situation is “mug”. A “mug” is a person who acts in good faith and is taken advantage of by others. So, anyone who followed the rules while Cummings or other rule-breakers acted selfishly is a mug. And being a mug doesn’t feel good.

In fact, the system only seems to work because of mugs. New COVID-19 cases seemed to level off because mugs like you and I stayed at home instead of going out. Meanwhile, the non-mugs benefitted from the advantage of continued personal liberty. This is not the hallmark of an effective moral system.

And this problem isn’t just relevant to this situation. It also, sadly, predicts a greater challenge for moral decency.

Why rule-breakers threaten the social contract

“Social contract” is a political term that means different things to different people. Here, let’s accept a basic version of it that says that by being members of a ‘society’ we receive certain benefits in exchange for behaving a certain way. I pay my taxes and avoid mass murder in exchange for street lights and an army to defend me from invasion. The social contact is not a real agreement anyone signed. Instead, we assume a kind of ‘tacit consent’ by which everyone accepts the status quo and plays their part.

But the social contract is an abstract concept. We don’t live in a wild state of nature where we’re so at-risk that we’re desperate to give up our liberty in exchange for protection. The contract exists at such a high level that most people don’t even perceive it. There just is “the state”, the state’s laws, and the benefits we get from the state. We don’t even question it.

So it’s no wonder that it’s easy to fail to fulfil our side of the bargain. It’s almost impossible to break your side of the deal in such a way that you won’t continue to benefit from the state. We no longer live in city-states that can exile you to the wilderness. No, break the laws of the state of you might have your liberty curtailed (prison) or in extreme cases, you might face the death penalty. But most of the time, the cost for reneging on your side of the deal is minuscule, or non-existent.

Driving 80mph on a motorway? That’s breaking the rules of society in the UK. If you get caught, the state might slightly inconvenience you, but it won’t throw you out of the country. But lots of people speed and most people aren’t caught. So this “rule” fails.

Let’s apply the concept of rules to ‘good behaviour’

And it’s not just about laws. A good citizen is also one that chooses not to make things worse for others, in ways that aren’t explicitly specified in law. Cleaning up after yourself, for example, isn’t a legal requirement. But most people will have a negative opinion on littering. And yet, people still litter! What should we make of that?

Given what we’ve already talked about, this seems straightforward. The individual(s) suffer no price for failing to clean up after themselves. They even benefit from not having to pay the labour cost themselves of putting their rubbish in a bin. The rule of cleaning up after yourself is a noble one, but the act itself isn’t beneficial.

And the same goes for so many more examples in society. I often get angry at people who push in front of me while boarding the tube, for instance. Have they committed a legal offence? No. Have they breached some social rule? Maybe, if politeness is a system of social rules. Did it benefit them? Yes.

So… what now?

This feels like a depressing conclusion. That rule utilitarianism is doomed because people are inherently selfish. And perhaps it is. But are they any solutions?

One solution would be to enforce the rules better. If police patrolled parks 24/7 and politeness-enforcers existed on the tube maybe things would be better. And perhaps we could increase the cost of rule-breaking by withdrawing more benefits of the social contract. But these are not popular measures. Imposing the death penalty for dropping a packet of crisps feels like overkill. And it would probably cause more problems than it solves.

We can’t, however, just give up. We all want to live in a decent society. And a system of rules seems like the most pragmatic way to do that. It’s not perfect by any means. But we can’t expect people to make their own calls on everything, that would be anarchy.

But we should also be acutely aware of the existence of bad citizens. And we shouldn’t be afraid to call them out. It may seem impertinent to be the one telling your friend that they really shouldn’t be meeting with two non-members of their household. But if you tell them that it’s putting the social contract at risk, I’m sure they’ll come around.