Teaching Ethics

Harry Pollard

[Reprinted from a Land-Theory online discussion, 18 December 1999]

Answering the Question: Are Ethics Subjective?

I began as an engineer, before I decided to make some money - then lose it as a paid professional Georgist hack. So, I tend to look at things as they are rather than chase off into the blue. (This is why I describe myself as a neo-sophist. The sophists got themselves attached to a bad name - sophistry - because they insisted on calling it as they saw it. The emperor would be quickly laughed back into his clothes if there were sophists about.

All my courses begin with the two Basic Assumptions (capitalized because they should be).

I've already noted the two assumptions that must precede all sciences. In addition, each science has its own assumptions.

Our science has two - Bertrand Russell, speaking to assumptions pointed out that two were better than sixteen -- the more you have -- the greater the chance of error.

Our science begins, of course, with excellent Assumptions about human nature. That "people's desires are unlimited, and that they seek to satisfy their desires with the least exertion".

So, in all the courses I've written, those two Assumptions are first to be studied. People don't like absolutes and sometimes there is discomfort. "Maybe, most people -- except wrestlers, mountain climbers and painters seek" or maybe "Except for holy men, desires are unlimited."

I am adamant - EVERY human is described by these two Assumptions. "What about a brain dead person?" "Why do you think we call him a vegetable?" -- and so on, and so on.

I ask students to come back next week with two examples of people who are not described by both Assumptions. In fifty years of teaching, no-one has ever brought back even one example.

So, students come to the realization that this science of unpredictable humanity -- begins with absolute predictability. (When I'm really rolling, I'll relate the predictability of our science with the unpredictability of natural sciences. But, for that I need twinkling feet.)

So, I would base my discussion of morality and ethics on these two Assumptions. Before I get a retort that these are economic assumptions -- without ethical considerations -- let me say that the very first needs for humanity are food, clothing and shelter -- actually shelter is probably first.

So, what is good or bad, in the first instance, rests squarely on whether I am better able to survive, or less able to survive. (You may remember how I put it to the kids: "Will you be more able, or less able, to survive next winter.")

Now, if this sounds like self interest -- or if you wish, selfishness -- so be it. I can't help it if Ayn Rand copied my ideas for her own purposes. However, as she didn't have the advantage of the two Assumptions, she moved into the area of "looting" and "sacrificing" -- also an interesting line of thought.

(Being true to Georgist PHILOSOPHY, I hit my Objectivist friends with "Pollard's Oar" -- a contention that is based on our Assumptions.)

People use reason rather than instinct (Ashley Montagu said we have no instincts). We make choices that seek to improve our condition. These include cooperation with others -- perhaps the most important -- and the reason we are free traders. (Remember, free trade is not political policy, but protection is.)

Values must be subjective. They take place in the mind. What else can they be? However, we don't know what those values are -- not even those in our own minds. We can relate them -- "I prefer this to that" -- but we don't know them absolutely.

But, we can know the imperative that produces those values -- right out of the Basic Assumptions. I prefer things that advantage me to things that disadvantage me. I prefer things that advantage me more to things that advantage me less.

So the ethic had better conform to these "engineering standards". An ethic that fails to increase our chance of survival (increase our chances of surviving the winter) is an ethic which is stupid.

(Unless our objective is the ending of our species. But then, what has the species ever done for me?)