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This section introduces the topics above, including hyperlinks to them and some explanation. You can also go directly to any topic by clicking the hyperlink in the list above.
There are two ways to investigate ethics. The first is as an impartial observer, who is a student of history; he identifies behaviors common in societies past and present and analyzes cause-and-effect relationships between behaviors and outcomes. The second is as a decision maker, who is typically seeking recommendations and not merely observations.
All people must inevitably make decisions. Each person typically seeks to:
If a person deduces cause-and-effect relationships in socities, where certain kinds of behavior result in misery while other kinds of behavior result in widespread prosperity and happiness, that information can be useful. If the decision maker is similar to the other people in those societies, he can expect the same results for himself (or herself). Thus, he can turn an observation into a decision (to adopt the behavior that produces happiness). Similarly he can recommend that behavior to others in the hope that they will adopt it for their mutual success.
It becomes more difficult, however, if the decision maker and the ones he hopes to convince have variations among them, so that they don't necessarily all want the same things. Some may be kind and generous; others cruel and stingy. We see across history that sometimes societies have dictatorial leaders of the latter type (cruel and stingy) and for everyone else who would prefer otherwise, they find it very difficult to convince those in power to change.
Philosophers throughout the ages have tried to address this problem, by developing various theories to describe what the "rational" person should do. The difficulty here is that there still remains disagreement about which theory is best. Moreover, people are not always rational so they are not necessarily convinced regardless. Thus, a person may find that some others treat him badly regardless of what argument he may present to them.
Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt to try! There are very real consequences of different kinds of behavior, and some of these are indirect and deferred. Often people who make those kinds of decisions don't realize the results they are producing, and how those results can be counterproductive to their own happiness.
There is no single mastermind who has created the moral rules that are widely adopted across the world. Instead, standards of ethics have emerged over time in an evolutionary fasion. You can see gradual change in standards over history, as illustrated in the History of Social Progress.
There is an evolutionary mechanism at work to develop these rules. Individuals discover a "better way" of doing something by experience, and when the "better way" requires a standard of behavior among people, that standard tends to spread. Even if there are multiple equivalent standards that tend to produce about the same result, a standard will emerge. This mechanism is illustrated by the rules of the road simulation
We can also see that certain kinds of behavior among groups tends to result in better results for the society as a whole, as measured by survivability and self-reported happiness of members of the society. Different behavior modes are tested in the free downloadable Project NewWorld simulation, described in the Simulations section.
The simulations test altruistic behavior and various other modes of behavior. But the natural world is also a testing ground and various modes of behavior can be seen among animals. From primitive animals we generally don't expect much beyond a brutish fight for survival, but some of them (particularly the more complex ones) also demonstrate altruistic tendencies. This might tend to also explain an early origin for altruism in humans, which is associated with more caring behavior that is often considered praisworthy and "moral". To find out more about animal altruism, read Evolutionary advantage of Altrusim
Happiness is often taken as the desired outcome of ethical behavior, so that is addressed in the topics Purpose of Life and Happiness.
In search of happiness, people define ideals that are targeted outcomes to be achieved. The standards of the society are generally designed to bring the society closer to the ideal conditions.
On that same topic, your are invited to have a look at the Ideals Survey to see how a few respondants have rated some common ideals. Feel free to respond to the survey yourself if you wish.
Because of the desire to receive help when neeed, and the natural tendency in highly evolved species to want to help, societies inevitably define legal and moral standards of behavior that create higher levels of happiness than would otherwise be present in the population.
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