I have long been concerned with the welfare of other people, and with what I can do to make the world a better place. Over many discussions about politics with friends, I realized that there were two types of disagreements:
- disagreements about facts (what would happen under policy X?)
- disagreements about values (would that be a good thing?)
Even if we sort out the first category, and determine what would happen under different policy choices, we still couldn't decide what to do without a good understanding of what we should be aiming for. Should our ultimate aim be to maximise the amount of money earned? to maximise the amount of happiness? to maximise our freedoms? to minimise inequality? to minimise environmental damage? Should we try to achieve some weighted combination of these? and should there be constraints on what we might do to achieve our goal? Ethics is the study of these questions, and many related questions concerning our values. Ethics doesn't just apply to political disputes, but to all disagreements about what to do, on both small and large scales. With a better understanding of ethics we can make better decisions because we will be better at evaluating our options.
Many people assume that ethics is very imprecise, but I don't think it need be so. My background is in science and mathematics, and I approach ethical problems with a similar rigour. I aim to be very clear and precise, taking particular care to show the limits of my arguments. I believe that all of ethics can be approached in such a manner and that this allows a certain modularity to ethical thought so that like scientists, moral philosophers can build up a sound structure over time. I see Henry Sidgwick, Derek Parfit and John Broome as great exemplars of this approach.
I also see the importance of directly trying to make the world a better place — putting the lessons of ethics into practice. Such an approach is strangely uncommon, though there have been a few exceptions such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stewart Mill, and Peter Singer, all of whom felt the concerns of others very deeply and had tremendous influence in redressing them. For my own part, I shall do as I might to both improve our understanding of ethical issues and to directly improve things in the world. If I were to do half as well as any of these six philosophers, I would do well indeed.