Volume 44, 1998
What May We Do?
An Evolutionary Ethical Theory of Social Risks and Opportunities
Social standards guide us in what to do and what to refrain from doing. But can social — moral or legal — standards be trusted? This paper presents an evolutionary ethical theory that generates trustworthy ethical norms. Each norm is assigned a demonstrable risk, called an ethical risk, that depends on both human behavior and danger to the survival of society. The assigned risk is minimal if and only if everybody obeys the norm. The higher the risk assigned to a norm, the higher the norm’s rank (an empirical quantity depending on the evolutionary status of society). An ordered finite set of ethical risks and ethical norms allows the settlement of ethical problems arising in society. Subsets of existing moral and legal standards all over the world are compatible with norms being elements of these ordered finite sets of ethical norms. Like all standards, ethical norms are often violated. A single violated norm suffices to activate correlations between risks, resulting in an ethical conflict. The more often a high-ranking norm is violated, the poorer the society in question. Ethical conflicts can be resolved by responsible persons or groups advancing higher-ranking norms involved in optimization at the expense of lower-ranking norms. Examples are given to support the theory.