My first (1) experience with academic ethics convinced me to stop trying to be ethical.
I was 18 years old and trying to figure out what to do with my life, so I had the silly thought, “Oh, that’s what ethics is about! Ethics is about figuring out what one ought to do.”
I promptly went to the university library and got out an intro to ethics book called “Ethics” and read it cover to cover.
Each chapter had the same structure:
1) Introduce a possible moral theory and reasons to believe it
2) Introduce all the devastating counterarguments against that view
I kept reading, dying with curiosity to find out what the answer was in the last chapter.
The Last Chapter where they told me which moral theory didn’t have anything critically wrong with it.
You can predict how this is going to turn out.
I remember reaching the end of the last chapter and saying to myself, “Well, I can’t even be a nihilist, because I know all the problems with that theory too!”
I decided then not to really bother trying to figure out ethics or how to do good things or what was right.
It was only a year later that I saw a documentary about some horrible thing happening in the world that jolted me into realizing that this was too important of an issue to just relegate to a shoulder shrug.
The suffering in the world is too great to just say, “Who knows what we should do?”.
The Moral of the Story
Not sure what the moral of this story is.
Maybe it's that ethical philosophy is confusing and confused?
Maybe it's that you should skip to the last chapter if you think that's where the answer is?
Maybe it's that you need to pair the intellectual effort of figuring out what is "good" with the real life reason why it's important?
Maybe it's that figuring out what is ethical is an unsolved problem, an open question that you should continue trying to answer throughout your entire life?
Who knows? Although, I do feel that this story ending with an ambiguous message seems apt, so let's leave it at that.
(1) My actual first experience with academic ethics was when I was 16 and I stumbled across a book of Plato's writings. The first chapter explained how the only true love was between a man and a boy.
But let's just move right along.
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Nonlinear, Charity Entrepreneurship, and Charity Science Health (Suvita)