Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 2 2022

The Limits of Ethics

We have come a long way from a world that was about fighting to survive.  Today, society is more about not harming any person while trying to grow and thrive in life.  In the billions of years since the first organism came into existence, social animals evolved to cooperate for greater survival and well-being.  Now, we face a strange situation where biology, which evolved in a “survival of the fittest” manner, and civilized society, where we try not to cause any harm, are in conflict with each other.  So what are the limits to how we can apply ethics?  Let’s take a look.

I should preface this post with the fact that I have a long explanation (80 pages!) in my book, The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, about ethics, how they formed and come from values, and how humans apply them to other living organisms.  Let me give you the summary of that Ethics chapter as to how it gets us to the question of what the limits of ethics are:

So, let’s put all of this together to figure out what the limits of ethics are.  First, value is subjective—there is no such thing as intrinsic value (except in the philosophy of ethics, in which every human has intrinsic value—let’s put that aside for now because all that means is that you can’t kill people or treat them much differently than other people).  There is simply what people place value on and what ethics they then decide to follow based on those values.  Humans value human life, so they protect it.  They value money, so they work to obtain it.  They value honesty, integrity, and honor, so they don’t lie, cheat, or steal.

This is where limits come in: life evolved from valuing only the self to families to unrelated groups to all of the same species (i.e., humans) to having ethics for animals such as dogs, cats, birds, cattle, elephants, and lions.  There aren’t many laws for harming plants, insects, or rodents yet, as the harm they can cause (e.g., diseases, property damage) supersedes the protection that parts of society might which to afford them.  Here, we are reaching the limits at which you can apply ethics to all living creatures: because no other organism has all five criteria for ethical accountability (i.e., understand, communicate, agree, plan, and follow the rules), something has to give.  You cannot have a crime against squirrels for murder, for example, if squirrels can’t consciously stay off the road where people will run over them.  Insects have no sense of property rights, so you have to be able to kill them if they make a home within the walls of your house (imagine being legally required to tear up your house and safely take them outside).

So what will happen?  Well, it will be a constant battle between the biological nutritional needs of humans and animals to consume other living organisms (and defend themselves from animals who cannot adopt human ethics) with the desire to minimize overall harm to life.  The biggest issue for most people is the value piece.  Many ask, “Well, if we can establish that all humans have value, then why can’t we establish that all animals have them?  And why can’t we stop eating all animals if we can invent nutritional replacements (e.g., plants plus vitamins or lab-grown meat)?  And why can’t we treat them ethically even though they don’t know any better?”  Well, you can see the issues as we mentioned above, so let’s summarize them since they determine the limits:

So those are the limits of ethics.  Yes, we will keep pushing the limits for both sustainability reasons and because humans value other organisms.  However, there’s no doubt that we cannot have the exact same ethics for animals and plants as humans because they do not satisfy the five requirements for ethical accountability.  Many will argue for more ethics because humans have the knowledge that animals and plants do not, while others will point out the great cost to humans if they cannot, for example, cut down a tree that might fall on someone or use pest control techniques.  Some will point to the innovation in nutrition and say that animal product consumption should stop, whereas others will point out that humans still have the evolutionary biology of omnivores and so have to be able to access those nutritional options (e.g., people on the carnivore diet for health/allergy reasons).

While this post mainly focused on the limits to applying ethics to all living organisms, there is one final point to make about the limits of ethics in humans: what is harm, and to what extent can you prevent it without encroaching on someone’s freedom and right to grow and protect themselves?  For example, can you pass laws governing what people eat so they’re healthy?  Can you pass laws or set rules against saying things that offend people?  Can you prevent people from protecting themselves because those protective measures could also be used to harm?  Just like with the limits of ethics toward all living creatures, societal ethics will reach a conflict at the point at which someone’s desire to be safe, comfortable, and gratified/validated will conflict with other people’s right to be free.

Ultimately, you’ll have to pick where you draw the line today and in the future so you can live with yourself.  There’s no doubt that the ethical line will continue to move as new technologies and societal advancements develop, but there are theoretical limits to ethics as long as biology, intelligence, rights, and other factors continue to be major influences as to how organisms behave with regards to each other.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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