How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time

This book is both an accessible history of ethics, and an original contribution to the subject.  It explains puzzles which have vexed moral philosophers over the centuries, how solutions to some of them can be found, and why some problems can never be solved.  Deliberately written without jargon, this book is for anyone fascinated by ideas, and who likes to understand questions before they accept answers.  More details – including how you can buy the book – are available from the publishers, Bloomsbury, here.

Praise for ‘How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time’

“An academic audience interested in practical philosophy will find King’s approach to everyday morals bracing, optimistic and perhaps inspiring.” – Publishers’ Weekly

“This may well become a classic; it’s certainly a good read, and definitely makes you think. This book could be the perfect antidote for you – a reminder that there probably are deep moral truths out there and there is a reason to try to do what’s right.” – Liberal Democrat News

“Iain King’s ambitious book is an honest attempt to think through and answer questions at the heart of morality. Anyone with an interest in practical answers to moral questions will find this book of interest too.” – Royal Institute of Philosophy, UK” 

This book tries, and perhaps succeeds, in setting out a pretty revolutionary ethical theory – as well as being a good general introduction to and history of the subject. It is a new book, and there may be a flaw nobody’s seen yet. But until someone can say what’s wrong with this new approach to right and wrong, this could be the most important book in ethics for a very long time… it could still change the way we think about a whole field of philosophy.”

“In beautifully clear language, it sets out the main problems of moral philosophy, then actually solves most of them with great originality, and brings together what’s left into a new single theory of moral philosophy. A unified theory which answers most of the teasing puzzles of ethics… This book rescues utilitarianism by developing a much-modified version of it, complete with a new proof. This allows it to give answers to Williams on integrity, Rawls on maximin (the different rules for decision-making in small and large groups are compelling), GE Moore’s Open Quesion argument, the limitlessness of trying to tackle poverty, and several others all within the same theory. (It does not deal with potential people, so the book does not cover bio-ethics or population control.) Until people find a big mistake in this, moral philosophy looks like it has been largely solved. Even if an error is found, it should be required reading for all undergraduates in philosophy, and anybody thinking of studying it. And good, also, for non-philosophers who want to get into ethics.” – Brain Donor, via Amazon

“It is great to read a book where the author has had the chance to evaluate his work and set it up in a thoughtful book that appeals to everyone.” – Bjorn Hauksson, via Amazon.co.uk

“This is a very smart book, which both introduces people to the main ideas in ethics, and then goes on to (try to) solve them. It develops a new theory in ethics which answers many (but not all – it doesn’t go into population ethics, for example) of the problems which currently dominate the field. If the original ideas in this book stand up it could mean the end of moral philosophy as we know it. Worth reading, if only to try to find the mistakes (I couldn’t).” – Hazel D, via LibraryThing

“A very attractive and comprehensible argument, told in a chatty but far from superficial style. It reminds me most of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though without the motorcycles, and it possibly has the potential to become a similar cult classic with the right sort of marketing. (Certainly has a catchy title.)” – Nic Whyte (via Goodreads)

“Really inspiring. I can’t judge his original theory as a proper philosopher might be able to, but Iain King is fantastic at expressing ideas in ways which appeal to someone who thinks more about cats than Socrates (like me). He explains what the main philosophers said, and why their ideas were important, but without talking down to you. The things he wrote about charity really made me question what I do, and I loved his examples (like Sven). This is an excellent book for anyone who wants both an introduction to ethics (which is the study of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – hence the teasing title to this book) and is looking for some original thoughts. It is clever without making you feel stupid.” – Sarah Tunney (via Goodreads)

“This is a fascinating book on ethics and morality in the modern world. It includes whithin it the greatest ideas about this subject from the ancient world philosphers up to nowdays thinkers. The outcome is a brilliant system how to make good decisions following certain Principles which maybe the majority of people are doing already using their intuition. This book explains how we are making right or wrong decisions and what we need to know to improve our skills. Although the subject is serious the book is easy to read and understand due to the brilliant language and style.” – T Radenkovic (via Amazon.co.uk)

“I was drawn to this book by the title and found inside a clear and highly readable examination of complex yet everyday (and therefore accessible) moral issues. Making decisions is something we all do, each day, and this book gives you space to think about that process, using short punchy chapters to present a different moral dilemma (yes, even on sex, in case you’re wondering) which then gets explored.” – Lucy B (via Amazon.co.uk)

“This book makes complex ideas simple, so don’t assume that it’s only for intellectuals…or that it’s aimed at management theorists. It illustrates how you can be an altruist without being a martyr, updating and applying ideas such as ‘do as you would be done by’. The examples bring it to life, posing a variety of challenges and then navigating a way through with a clear explanation of why this would be the best decision in the circumstances. Read it and be right.” – Bob, via Amazon.co.uk

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9 comments

  1. You write, “Aristotle believed no general rule on lying was possible, because anybody who advocated lying could never be believed, he said,” p. 147.

    May I have the reference to Aristotle saying that, please?

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    • Thanks. See Nichonachean Ethics, Book 4.7. He says that ‘Falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and worthy of praise’; Aristotle is alikening lies to acts like murder and adultery (Book 4.6) which ‘have no mean’ and are inherently bad. See also Simon Blackburn, ‘Ruling Passions’ (1998), for more on this interpretation.

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    • Thank you for your response to my question regarding, “Aristotle believed no general rule on lying was possible, because anybody who advocated lying could never be believed, he said.”

      I was interested in the wording because it resembles Kant’s arguments. If that quote is genuinely Aristotle, then by advocating lying, the liar becomes unable to say anything reliable. Kant’s argument is different; he focuses on rules. Often he finds a universal rule through reductio ad absurdum. For example, assume the rule, “sometimes lying is right.” Any exception you can imagine are included in the “sometimes.”

      Adoption of that rule allowing exceptions renders all communication impossible. We rely on the rule that everyone speaks honestly. But we must disregard that rule with the new rule that allows exceptions. Without honesty, communication becomes impossible. That is, I cannot believe anything said by anyone, lest someone decides in this moment that lying is right.

      Without honesty, there is no communication, and without communication, lying is impossible. That is the Kantian twist, resembling your comment about Aristotle. (It the same twist J.S. Mill fails to see in the first few pages of his Utilitarianism.) To clarify, the very rule that allows lying makes communication impossible and the inability to communicate renders lying impossible. In short, the rule that allows lying destroys itself.

      If this is sound, then we must conclude “sometimes lying is right,” is false. That conclusion yields the verdict: “sometimes lying is not right.” In other words, lying is always wrong.

      Before writing you, I looked everywhere for the source of that quote. I know the Nicomachean Ethics well, and I have never seen anything like that in NE or any of his writings. Curiously, though, the passage about lying you indicated does not fit the binary options of stealing, murder, and adultery. In fact, I believe, in that passage (4.7) Aristotle claims to making lying or deception into one of the triad of options found in virtues, like courage. He says, “[after the foregoing discussion] we shall be convinced that the virtues are means if we see this to be so in all cases.” Immediately after that comment, he shows that lying is one of those virtues with means.

      He is thinking about people who boast beyond their accomplishments, or those who are mock-modest by belittling their accomplishments. Here we find one truth, the mean where one speaks truthfully of one’s accomplishments, with two vices, which are falsehoods, that is, two ways of speaking falsely. Aristotle cements this point, “the truthful man is . . . being in the mean . . . and both forms of untruthful man are culpable . . . .”
      I appreciate your time and energies in responding to my question.

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    • Thank you. That’s very well informed and interesting. One immediate upshot is that, since lying (and polite dishonesty, white lies etc) are an everyday necessity, the inability of a pure Kantian approach to accommodate them says much about Kant. I’ll keep pondering the rest of your thoughts. Thanks again, Iain

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    • Lying is an effort to manipulate other people, i.e., to treat them as objects rather than beings with free will. The lie tries to undermine free will by pushing someone in a direction he would not choose if he had an honest response. For example, my friend asks what I think of her new dress. Truth is, I think it’s inappropriate for her. But, in the name of kindness or social convention, I lie so that she feels something she does not feel if I am honest. That is, I endeavor to limit her choices through manipulation. If I am honest, I reinforce her choice to consider whether to keep the dress or decide that I am mistaken.

      The Kantian also thinks our polite dishonesty and white lies are efforts to make the liar feel good. If I lie to my friend, telling her she looks good in it, she will feel good (though under false pretences), and that makes me feel good. Moreover, I won’t have to comfort her if she thinks she made a poor choice buying the dress. My life is easier if I simply tell people what they want to hear, and ignore genuine questions they use to make good decisions.

      I must agree with you. Kant’s conclusions about lying say much about him: he thinks it’s wrong to manipulate people.

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  2. Thanks Thomas – if I detect sarcasm in your reply, then it means you think manipulating people is always wrong. Is it? Surely you’d lie to a terrorist with a bomb, thereby manipulating them? And the very idea of a ‘lie’ is misleading, as though there’s a very neat boundary between lies and non-lies – in reality, all communication involves, at very least, a selective (‘manipulative’) summary of information being conveyed in a specific, deliberate (‘manipulative’) way. To try to communicate without any sort of manipulation is to be unintelligible.

    (This is a great discussion, by the way!), Iain

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    • Sorry. I don’t do sarcasm. I also don’t get it. I’m told that I am too literal minded to follow it.

      You’ve given me more than a single challenge; I’d like to focus on the issue of Kant’s theory and lying to the terrorist. I’ve been working on an argument defending Kant’s view from a different criticism. But I think my new argument works here, too. Since this is the first time I’m using it, I’d appreciate any of your thoughts, large or small, on the logic and on the presentation of it.

      Your criticism puts the Kantian in a difficult place. If I agree that lying to the terrorist is not wrong, then I must give up Kant’s theory. If I support Kant, stubbornly insisting that even lying to the terrorist is wrong, then I am a moral monster. Before I make a hasty choice, let’s examine these two claims further.

      Kant’s conclusion is grounded in Aristotelian logic. Like mathematics, this logic provides the greatest certainty we have. If there were some flaw in his reasoning, you or someone would have discovered it. (I’m aware of only one argument that takes a stab at failing Kant along those lines.) For present purposes, there is no critique on the logic of his argument, so we can assume that his conclusion about lying is true. But what supports the claim that lying to terrorists is not wrong?

      I am told that such proof is found in one’s feelings. Most people feel more comfortable permitting one to lie to terrorists. But, if the conclusion is a matter of feelings, then the major premise of that proof must be something like, feeling that something is right or wrong makes it right or wrong. That proof is

      1. Feeling that something is wrong (or not wrong) makes it wrong (or not wrong).
      2. I feel that lying to terrorists is not wrong.
      Therefore, lying to terrorists is not wrong.

      But that argument yields an inconsistent conclusion. Suppose that one person feels it is wrong and another person feels that it is not wrong. The major premise concludes that one should lie and not lie.

      The difference between Kant’s conclusion and yours is that between logic and feelings. It looks like the argument I have with the bank. The bank tells me I have no funds in my account. They present irrefutable mathematical evidence. So, I explain that don’t feel that I’m out of money. Of course, the evidence of my feelings is nothing in the face of the bank’s evidence.

      Utilitarians argue that greater happiness accrues to one action over the other. I’m not sure that the utilitarian argument is any more than counting the number of people who feel one way or the other. Mill, of course, wants to add the quality, or strength, of those feelings. But that does nothing to show that a conclusion, based on logic, is false.

      Although I feel more comfortable lying to a terrorist, I have no proof that it is the right thing to do. I cannot trust my feelings, without the guidance of reason, as they have failed me in the past.

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  3. Thanks – I understand where you’re coming from now.

    I think the problem is this: Kant was trying to find the secret ‘science’ behind ethics, much as Newton found the secrets of physics. There is reason to believe there is such a science: to say ‘X is bad’ is to say ‘all things which have the moral characteristics of X are also bad’. Ethics feels as though it ought to be coherent and consistent, with moral value coming from the thing (eg an action) you are saying is bad or good. And Kant does indeed create a system which is logical and generates mathematically consistent answers.

    The trouble with Kant’s system (and with Utilitarianism, which also tries to establish a coherent, consistent approach to ethics) is that, to generate this consistency, it can only locate ethical values in one place. For Kant, it is actions (just as for utilitarians it is the outcome of actions). The trouble is that our intuitions locate right and wrong in both of these, and elsewhere – sometimes we focus on rules, sometimes on outcomes. The terrorist case forces you to contradict Kant on lying because it forces you to think of outcomes (or, as you say, become a monster).

    And it is that shifting basis of our intuitions – sometimes routed in actions, sometimes in consequences, sometimes in other things – which means it’s impossible to refine all our intuitions into a single, simple system of ethics. That’s why only a hybrid system can generate a consistent ethical approach which complies sufficiently with our intuitions.

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  4. PS. Your suggestion of a hybrid theory resembles Kant’s distinction between narrow and wide duties. The distinction notes two ways of completing a morally right action. Narrow duties, such as the immoralities of lying, stealing, etc., are so, because there is only one way of not lying. Wide duties, such as our duty to be charitable, are so because there are a variety of ways of being charitable. For example, I can give money to a poor person, help an elderly woman carry her groceries, or be cheerful with the cashier. But I cannot know with certainty that my efforts truly are helpful.

    The uncertainty in our efforts means that we are not morally responsible for the consequences. We cannot know if the consequences will be as good as we intend. Suppose, for example, I give money to a local church, but the collector keeps the money for himself and buys drugs with it. I am charitable, even though the unforeseen consequences are unfortunate.

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