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What is the Most Important Question in Ethics?

by Roger Crisp

It’s often been said (including by Socrates) that the most important, ultimate, or fundamental question in ethics is: ‘How should one live?’.

That is usually understood as equivalent to: ‘How should I live?’. If so, then I’m not sure that this is the most important ethical question. Consider the following case from Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons:


 The Bad Old Days.

A thousand torturers have a thousand victims. At the start of each day, each of the victims is already feeling mild pain. Each of the torturers turns a switch a thousand times on some instrument. Each turning of a switch affects some victim’s pain in a way that is imperceptible. But, after each torturer has turned his switch a thousand times, he has inflicted severe pain on his victim.


Here the question, ‘What should I do?’, works well. If any torturer asks it, at the end of a day, the answer will be: ‘Stop torturing!’. But now consider another of Parfit’s cases:


The Harmless Torturers

In The Bad Old Days, each torturer inflicted severe pain on one victim. Things have now changed. Each of the thousand torturers presses a button, thereby turning the switch once on each of the thousand instruments. The victims suffer the same severe pain. But none of the torturers makes any victim’s pain perceptibly worse.


Here, if a torturer asks the ‘I’ question, they might plausibly answer: ‘I like torturing, and I’m not doing any harm, so I’ll keep on torturing’.

With these cases, Parfit illustrates well how the ‘I’ question isn’t suited to many significant collective action problems. Consider climate change. Many people think they might have to do something to prevent a climate disaster. But – unless they have significant influence – they can plausibly conclude: ‘Whether this disaster happens or not won’t depend at all on what I do. So I’ll keep on living in the same way’. And, of course, if large numbers of people do this, then a climate disaster may occur which is worse for all of them, and every other living person, than if they’d all changed their behaviour.

Our culture is individualistic: the ‘I’ question comes naturally to us. Other cultures are more collective: in these cultures, practical reasoning begins from, or at least takes very seriously, the question: ‘What should we do?’. There is no reason to think that, in itself, the individualist question is the place to start ethical thinking.

It is also important to recognize that there are ethical reasons for thinking in certain ways, or with certain concepts. As those working in ‘conceptual engineering’ have brought out especially clearly in recent years, the use of certain concepts or lines of thought is itself open to ethical assessment (consider e.g. Sally Haslanger’s work on race and gender).

The most important question in ethics, then, is not ‘How should one live?’, but ‘How should we live?’. And if you find yourself asking the question ‘How should I live?’, the answer is: ‘Ask yourself how we should live, and then take it from there’.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. There is at least one reason to think that the individualist question is the right place to start: whoever asks the question is an individual, not a collective, and so the individualist question is uniquely well-suited to being action-guiding.

    Consider an different version of the thousand torturers case, where the first button press turns the torture up to full, and each subsequent press (limited to once per agent) reduces it slightly. What should we all do? We should all refrain from pressing the button at all, to avoid causing any torture. But alas, this is not within my control — only *my* behaviour is. So: What should *I* do? It depends on the details. If some psychopathic colleague has already pressed the button (or is certain to subsequently do so), I should press the button to reduce the subsequent torture level. On the other hand, if the button is as yet unpressed, and I’ve a decent shot at rallying my colleagues to do the decent thing and leave it alone, then it may be worth aiming for that ideal result. But it all depends on what I’m actually able to achieve. So the individualist question does seem fundamental here.

    1. Thanks, Richard. Point taken about the individualist question being especially appropriate (though of course one might suggest that we as a group should ask, and act on, the collective question). My main suggestion is that the individualist question isn’t always well-suited to being action-guiding in the sense that, given the way individuals tend to think, in certain cases it’s worse for them and everyone else if they ask that question (sincerely) and then act on it than if they ask the ‘we’ question. I take the point also that there will be many cases where the ‘I’ question is fine (e.g. your case, or the Bad Old Days). But the collective action problems we face are so serious and urgent that more collective thinking is at least worth a try.

  2. Things were less interesting in Socrates’ times. Even much later than he and his friends. The Romans, allegedly, drew a map of their empire that was useless. Just for fun. I have said, indirectly, that we are sewn up with interests, preferences and motives. Or, as I have called it, contextual reality. John Perry, at Stanford, addressed this as something else. I don’t recall it—but think it is in their blog archive. Credit to Perry and me: I think we were getting at the same notion….oh, his idea was of LEVELS….pretty consistent with mine. We have advanced somewhat, since Socrates. Somehow, we think we can get it right, under extenuating circumstances. Well, no. So, why. Complexity caught up with and surpassed anything Socrates or DesCartes or maybe even Newton could have dreamed of. And, all Copernicus and Galileo had to contend with was the Church. I wander? Sure. Interests, preferences and motives are eternal. There is no most important question in ethics. Unless we can agree on what it is. See Stuart Kaufman….find your home, in the Universe.

  3. it all depends on what I’m actually able to achieve. So the individualist question does seem fundamental here. خرید فالوور توییتر

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