Why do most people behave Ethically?


This question has fascinated me for some time. I’ve often wondered if the reason we behave altruistically is due to some underlying selfish reasons. I have to add something to this, just because someone is aware of a high level fact such as this, doesn’t mean that any of the things that may be explained by such theories – love, co-operation, politics, etc are any less important, nor do I stop to act according to them.
Cosma Shalizi in one of his notebooks on ‘Ethics, Game Theory and Biology’ discusses why we should behave ethically? Specifically some of the issues are things such as ‘why do we fall in love’, ‘why do we follow tit-for-tat’ strategies.
It seems according to the research that the ‘ethics’ we follow do lead sometimes to material success. It seems that ‘be nice to everyone until they screw with you’ is a very good strategy, and of course we aren’t the only animals that exhibit this. Robert Sapolsky in The Uniqueness of Humans cites that ‘tit for tat’ occurs in fruit bats. Yet another example of how we as human beings share characteristics with other animals.
The last comment by Cosma is an interesting one – basically we could have evolved ethics and strategies which lead to material success. Yet it could be possible that material success is in itself vile. The more one learns about science the more one realizes just how flawed our brains are – we make definite errors in logic, statistics, visual perception, etc. For instance in modern physics our intuitions largely fail and have to be replaced by Mathematics. We fail to visualize greater than 3 dimensions, and we definitely struggle with probabilities in Quantum Mechanics.
Since Hume we’ve known that we can’t go from an ‘is to an ought’, just because we favor certain things doesn’t mean it should be that way. So some of the ways we behave may be unspeakably vile. Perhaps the bard was wrong:
” What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world – the paragon of animals! ” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare


The Irish Financial Crisis


Firstly, I’m Irish, and subsequently writing about this is difficult.
My late Grandfather, used to warn me that the Irish debt problem was a serious one. He passed away before all this crisis happened but he would probably feel a smug satisfaction ‘I told you so’.

A recent Vanity Fair piece by Michael Lewis looks in depth at the crisis. The statistics he quotes seem obvious now, how did everyone get this all so wrong?
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