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A Rational Code of Ethics - Background

Background to the Code

My aim in this project is to propose a draft Code of Ethics that is widely acceptable and simple enough to be taught to children. I understand that this is an ambitious project and do not expect to succeed on a first attempt. Although I am writing alone, I gratefully acknowledge a great deal of help, mostly from authors I have never met and also from discussions, face to face and on-line.

Of course I do not expect the Code to be universally adopted. That would be the ambition of a megalomaniac. My criterion of success would be if most readers considered it realistic and helpful, and if none found major flaws in it. That's ambition enough.

Here are two ground rules I have set for the project:

  1. Make no reference to any faith or belief system
  2. Import no 'laws' verbatim from any earlier source

The reason for the first of these rules is that belief, by definition, is accepting as fact that which can't be proven. Belief systems are mutually exclusive and therefore can't all be true. They can never form the foundation of a universal code.

The second is a derivative of the first. To import from a source is to favour that source above others, while to pick selectively from a source could be seen (by its adherents) as dilution of the original.

Also, it seems better to seek generalities than to attempt to address all eventualities because:

And, where possible, it seems better to proscribe than to prescribe because:

The separation of Ethics from Religion is nothing new. Rationalist philosophers have produced entire library shelves on the subject. But for the most part, these are scholarly works that are not accessible to children or even to the lay adult without a course of study. Everyday 'working' ethics need not be so complicated. In fact, the simpler the better, as the aim is for the code to be memorable. The rational view is that religions confuse the intuitive ideas of good and bad by linking them to a belief in God as the source of all such knowledge. Children are capable of understanding good and bad without any such complication.

What matters to the world is that people behave responsibly towards each other while they are alive. Even those who believe that people survive their deaths must surely still admit that dead folk play no active part in society. A code of ethics should therefore be immediate and pragmatic, and concerned solely with the real and tangible.

This should not be taken as an attack on religion. I am no more attacking religion than I am attacking music. I am simply dismissing religion (and music) as unnecessary and unhelpful in the particular field of behavioural ethics. Those who wish to pray (or play) are welcome to do so but should think carefully before forcing it on the children.

There is a minimum level of knowledge required to support any ethical code. For example, it is clearly not necessary for everyone to have a deep understanding of, say, cosmology, but to be a functioning member of the human family a few basic facts should be understood. As these are few and simple, they will be included in the Code, but as a preamble. These facts, in particular, must be demonstrably true beyond reasonable doubt and should not be articles of faith.

The code should not use 'baby language'. It is not meant for infants, but for young school children. Instead, I have tried to use language that is neither too simple nor too difficult. Ideally, a teacher could introduce the code and conduct a discussion on each item to reinforce understanding and to show how each follows naturally from the 'Knowledge'. For younger children, illustrative stories could be devised.

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