I want to be an ethical person, in the sense that I want to do what's best for the humanity. There might be ethical laws that if everybody stick to, the world would be a better place. But I'm a very tiny variable in the Earth, like a butterfly who doesn't know if flapping its wings will cause a tornado in the US or an earthquake in Japan. It seems totally random, so as long as I'm tiny and what I do is tiny, i.e. I'm not a celebrity, I'm like that butterfly. Any decision I make is equally likely to improve or worsen the world.

How can I be an ethical person? Some people might say it's your intentions that matters, but my intentions are based on my idea of the outcomes, which is in question.

  • This isn't an example of a paradox.
    – Not_Here
    Apr 4, 2018 at 9:40
  • 1
    You can be an ethical person by employing ethics when creating your morals. Morals are the rules, the do's and dont's. Ethics are the principles by which you create your morals; the "constitution" of your morals. Pick a set of ethics that resonates well with you, and off you go. If you want a starting-set of ethics, there is always the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that will get you really far. Not all apply to you personally, but you can use them to be supportive of community/societal efforts to see them implemented.
    – MichaelK
    Apr 4, 2018 at 10:14
  • It's your intentions that matter. Nobody has the slightest idea of the overall effects and outcomes of their actions. They will reverberate down through history in ways we cannot imagine. .
    – user20253
    Apr 4, 2018 at 10:22
  • When human is not under the constraints of any laws and dogmas, that's the inner self what defines the ethics. You have empathy for other people - thus try to make them feel better, not worse. You also can have other feelings and they define your ethics. Of course feelings may conflict with each other, thus you should define their priority accoding to your's and others' experience.
    – rus9384
    Apr 4, 2018 at 10:35
  • I personally believe in democracy, but I don't vote if the process of voting takes more than 10 minutes. It's a personal choice and is harmless.
    – asmani
    Apr 4, 2018 at 11:54

2 Answers 2


This is the same fallacy as "I have a 50% chance of winning the lottery - either I win or I don't, so they must be equally likely!" And yet I can sit here and laugh while you buy thousands of lottery tickets and never win once.

Similarly, "Any decision I make is equally likely to improve or worsen the world." is just wrong. You are an intelligent being, and you therefore have some capacity to manipulate the world into a form more pleasing to you. Your actions do not simply have random outcomes. (Well, they sort of do: there is a probability distribution on the outcomes. But that probability distribution is biased towards the outcomes you want, not uniformly distributed.)

A utilitarian consequentialist's answer, then, is "do what you think creates the highest expected improvement in the world, within your limited capacity to reason about the world".

Example of why it's not totally random: if you press the Kill Everyone In The World button (why did they make that thing anyway?), you probably agree that you've just performed an action that is Definitely Morally Wrong. There are circumstances in which pressing this button might be right, but I can only imagine this being the case when game theory is involved; and game theory requires intention.

  • I didn't get your lottery example. Could you please explain a little more?
    – asmani
    Apr 4, 2018 at 8:47
  • @Asmani, what is the probability of seeing real dragon outside today? Is it 50/50? You may try replace it with something more realistic. What is the probability that you will find money today outside?
    – rus9384
    Apr 4, 2018 at 9:52
  • @Asmani The fallacy is "there are two possible outcomes - I have a good impact or a bad impact on the world - and so they are both equally likely". This might be true if you acted randomly and the space of "good things" was exactly as big as the space of "bad things"; but you don't act randomly. You act with intelligence. Intelligence is what lets you constrain what happens, according to your will. Apr 4, 2018 at 10:42
  • @Uncertainty and probability are different things. If somebody comes ask me which is a greater number, the total number of humans hairs or the total number of ants? I have absolutely no idea. Therefore to me at that moment, it's equally likely for both of them to be the greater number.
    – asmani
    Apr 4, 2018 at 12:15
  • @Asmani Probability is the idealised measure of uncertainty. If a perfectly reasoning agent does not measure its uncertainty using a probability distribution (or an isomorphic construction), and its beliefs about the world influence its actions, then its beliefs are in theory exploitable by an agent which does reason using probabilities. Leaving that aside, you might well be right to assign 50% probability to there being more human hairs than ants on Earth. I don't see why that implies you can't be more than 50% confident that "kill literally all the humans" is a bad thing to do in general. Apr 4, 2018 at 16:41

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Sustainable Development

First a couple of definitions:

  • Morals, are the rules, the Do's and Don'ts that you gauge your actions against when deciding "Should I do this or not?". Morals are laws, commandments, that long mass of text that you scroll past when creating a game account and click "I agree" to without even reading, but that actually contains a code of conduct that you must obey if you wish to play the game.

  • Ethics are the rules and principles by which you create your morals. If morals are the laws, the ethics are the constitution of that law. For example: if one moral is "Thou shalt do no murder", the corresponding ethic that produced that moral is "Human life is valuable and should never be needlessly extinguished".

So to lead an ethical life, you need to pick some ethics and create your morals from those ethics.

Now comes the problem: which ethics should you pick? Which are the good ethics? Is there any consensus on what are good ethics?

As it happens... yes, we as humanity have actually come together and decided on a starting-set of good ethics. That collection of ethics is called...

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We have, as a world community, come together to declare that the UDHR is essential for both individuals and the world society as a whole; we consider the UDHR to be beneficial to all humanity, both for the one person and for the collective of persons.

But the UDHR is not fully implemented in all parts of the world, and it is being violated — to smaller or more extensive degrees — in all nations.

Therefore: working to implement and safeguard the UDHR is to work for humanity's best.

Can you guarantee that the result is for the best? No, you cannot. No-one can guarantee that. But by adopting the ethical principles of the UDHR, you have at least set your intention to work for something that the world community as a whole is beneficial for the human and the humanity.

Sustainable Development

As a bonus, you may want to adopt the principles of Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development was defined in the report by the Brundtland Commission, presented to the United Nations in 1987.

Sustainable Development is defined as:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • The concept of 'needs', in particular, the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

  • The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.

  • Good one, but name one country that actually respects all of it.
    – Overmind
    Apr 17, 2018 at 10:24
  • @Overmind The post specifically says: But the UDHR is not fully implemented in all parts of the world, and it is being violated — to smaller or more extensive degrees — in all nations.
    – MichaelK
    Apr 17, 2018 at 10:49

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