Ask a Philosopher, Part Six: The Moral Boundaries of Hedonism

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Six: The Moral Boundaries of Hedonism

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philosopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He has kindly agreed to allow us to pester him with questions relevant to veganism. For the final insstallment, we delved into the realm of personal responsibility.

PMF: No one can live without harming others creatures to some extent. Our very existences perturb the existences of those around us. Is the extent to which we compromise our own comfort or pleasure subjective and personal? Or is there a rational position from which we can work out how much harm is acceptable?


RJ: The idea that nature is red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson put it, fuels not just an irrational belief from some philosophers that we should mimic nature, but also a great deal of discomfort from those interested in ethics and alleviating suffering. That animals of all kinds vary in population not by choice but primarily by starvation and surplus, in cycles, can be a sobering experience for those of us in ethics who naively considered it our job to save the world. The suffering we have the capacity to eliminate, through amending human actions, is relatively low (as far as we can estimate). Yet it is no less important or indeed necessary.

To further chain our optimism; as the question suggests, simply by existing we likely harm other’s chances of doing likewise. The cars we drive, houses we build, fields we co-opt and farm; for every one of us there is a relationship between resources used and suffering caused elsewhere, for which we all take a share of responsibility.

I briefly mentioned earlier that a rational view of ethics can not be all-knowing. We aren’t inventing assumptions so as we can have nice, clean moral guides, and we aren’t praying so as we can receive a justification for our current opinions. If we want our moral opinions to be based on and informed by reason, then sometimes we won’t get an answer, because we don’t know the outcomes of every possible situation, but also because you can sometimes be left with two very bad choices. It strikes me that, in a very real sense, this question is positing one of those ‘bad choice vs. bad choice’ situations.

To answer the question properly, now I have suitably lowered the expectations for an answer: I think we should accept that less harm is generally better. This means that if we can make choices for less harm then we should do so. However a massive caveat in that narrow principle should be that self-care is extremely important. Every sentient being on earth experiences suffering because it allows us to better understand and avoid that which worsens our wellbeing. Consequently, our individual ability to look after ourselves is almost always superior to someone else’s ability to look after us.

Mental health, for instance, is an undervalued and severe form of suffering. In the vast majority of cases, mental health issues can be hidden or else not noticed by those not suffering them. So this is a great example of why we shouldn’t ever devalue our own wellbeing to the same level as someone else’s: one of the most important factors of a rational, functioning society would be in accepting that we each have a superior ability to judge and look out for our own wellbeing. To fail in doing this would be to advocate a martyristic, almost religious view of ethics, where we all devalue our own wellbeing in the pursuit of the ‘greater good’, rather than a rational view which accepted the reality of individual sentience and aspects like mental health.

This importance of self-care/wellbeing, stands in almost complete opposition to notions of environmental harm. The more resources we devote to ourselves, the more we take from elsewhere. So we encounter a situation requiring balance. If we are thinking about this in a linear perspective – with complete egotistical actions on one end, and environmental martyrism on the other – clearly the right answer is somewhere in the middle. A middle ground whereby we have a responsibility to keep ourselves alive and free from suffering, alongside an obligation to cause only the harm it is reasonable to. But what an interesting time to be alive and involved in ethics this is; someone could decide to start writing a book on this very issue tomorrow, and unearth evidence and arguments that completely disprove all of the above.

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