Universal Ethics > Research > Ideals

Ideals-based decision making

How can a person fulfil their desires most effectively? With the help of other people! How can one do it least effectively? Create conflict with everyone else by breaking all the ethical rules!

But how is this cooperation to be achieved? How can a set of ethical rules and practices be devised that people will follow voluntarily, with a minimum of conflict and low costs of enforcement? How can this be achieved when different people and groups often have different standards of behavior and different traditions?

An effective way to address this problem is to identify shared ideals. The ideals describe desirable outcomes that appeal to the motives of all people, and which are achievable by foreseeable means.

Typically agreement on the ideals is readily achievable. Once that is accomplished, then one can identify various means of achieving the ideals. Each proposed method must be evaluated for its effectiveness and its lack of unwanted side-effects. This evaluation is done using an evidence-based approach. Use of evidence and scientific proof helps people get past conflict over differing opinions. Any person can examine the evidence themselves if they wish to, so that they don't have to rely solely on the opinions of self-proclaimed authorities.

Where Ideals come from

The foundation for developing shared ideals is understanding that you have the same basic motivators as other people. This enables you to develop shared ideals.

In order to bring these ideals to reality, people develop rules of behavior. They also set goals for the work that is necessary, and define various roles so that the work can be divided across members of a society.

The relationship between the motivators, shared ideals, rules, goals and roles is shown in the following diagram:

The first box in this diagram is the "common motivators". Every person has some basic desires that have evolved in them. In primitive animals those desires include hunger and thirst, which also occur in people. But people also have capabilities for learning and large-scale cooperation, which are supported by additional motives such as curiousity and caring. For a list of common motivators for humans, click here.

Ideals are more specific than motivators; ideals describe a world in which multiple motivators are fulfilled without adverse side effects. Ideals are an invention, and shared ideals are ideals that are attractive because they produce happiness for all the participants. Ideals work together as a collection to describe a preferred situation that people aspire to have.

As an example, to fulfil the motivator "abundance vs hunger", we might set an ideal whereby each person will have food readily available to them at all times from a stocked kitchen. An alternate ideal from a past era might be that each person should have access to land so that they can harvest their own food whenever they are hungry. That latter ideal doesn't work so well in a modern society where people specialize in different roles that don't all involve agriculture. Typically ideals are improved over time to reflect the best that is possible with the knowledge and technology that is available or under development.

A basic set of ideals

What are the most basic ideals, that form the foundation of a society that people will like the best? It's hard to say for sure, because there is no limit to the imagination's ability to invent an ideal world, ideal community, ideal family, or ideal person. However, if we keep this to the most basic level--a widespread ideal that can be shared by an unlimited number of people, that are durable across multiple generations--then we might arrive at a short list.

Therefore, we have proposed a basic list of ideals that is included in our Ideals Survey. To see the list and to participate in the survey, click here.

The ideals offered in the survey are designed to fulfil the standard motivators that are found in humans, and also they are compatible with motivators in animals that can cooperate with humans (i.e.: pets). Thus, in the ideal world humans and pets can coexist cooperatively, without either one preying on the other. To see how the ideals from the survey fulfil each of the motivators, click here to see a cross-reference chart.

These generic ideals are meant to be broadly applicable, so that all people can adopt these ideals and have cooperation among them. However, it is also possible to define additional ideals that are specific to a particular group. Any kind of organization can have ideals that are specific to the mission of the organization which are also compatible with the overall societal ideals. Similarly, a family can define ideals among themselves for a higher standard of love among family members than is found among people in society overall.

Defining ideals is a starting point for describing ethical standards. There is no limit to the number of ideals one can imagine. To bring these ideals into being, it is possible to define multiple levels of ethical standards. At the bottom of the foundation are basic standards. Built on that are higher levels that people may aspire to, each with its own benefits that go beyond the layer below it.

Achieving the ideals

There are two basic approaches used to achieve the ideals:

  1. Creating an action plan.
  2. Defining of rules of behavior.

The action plan defines a step-by-step series of activities that need to be carried out to bring the ideal into reality, and to maintain it afterward.

The action plan may require a variety of different skills to complete. Therefore, it is divided into roles and goals. This enables the work to be divided up among different members of society, who may each choose from among the various roles. The goals are the specific outcomes that are to be achieved.

The Pathways Planner software is one tool you can use to develop specific action plans for achieving goals. It supports a step-by-step methodology for making detailed plans and tracking progress. To download your free copy of the planner, go to the Pathways Planner web site.

In addition to planning specific actions, it is also necessary for all participants to know what to do when various unplanned circumstances arise. For this purpose, it is necessary to have rules.

Most people think if ethics as consisting primarily of rules. For example, a very basic ethical rule is that people are not permitted to murder each other. However, rules can also include obligations, such as an obligation for a capable person to help someone nearby who is in a desperate need of help.

Rules are defined in support of ideals. On this web site, the Online Ethics Checklist is built on rules that support the standard ideals that are in the above-mentioned ideals survey. If you view the details for any topic within the checklist, you will see a description of the ideal situation that the rule is meant to support.

It is pretty much impossible to define rules covering every conceivable situation that might exist in the universe. There are a few broad rules that are widely applicable, but for specific unusual situations, it is necessary to apply some discretion. The decision maker must determine if applying the rule in that situation supports their ideals or is counterproductive.

It was mentioned above that ideals can also be defined for specific groups such as organizations or families. In support of those ideals, the groups or families can define their own polices, which extend the rule set overall.

Return to Universal Ethics home page