The Ask-First Principle: How to Tell Right from Wrong
Picking up from my previous blogessay, if we cannot reliably turn to the Bible and other sacred texts to determine moral right and wrong, to whom shall we turn? If we cannot ask God, whom shall we ask? One answer can be found in the first moral principle, the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The golden rule is a derivative of the basic principle of exchange reciprocity and reciprocal altruism, and thus evolved in our Paleolithic ancestors as one of the primary moral sentiments. (If I’m right about this, then it means that religion did not invent the golden rule and other moral principles; it co-opted them, then codified them.) In this principle there are two moral agents: the moral doer and the moral receiver. A moral question arises when the moral doer is uncertain how the moral receiver will accept and respond to the action under question. By asking yourself, “how would I feel if this were done unto me?” you are asking “how would others feel if I did it unto them?”
But the golden rule has a severe limitation to it: what if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Two examples come to mind, one light-hearted and the other deadly. (1) Most men are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test (“Let’s see, how would I feel if she asked me for sex? Terrific! So she’ll probably feel the same”), they should ask female friends. (2) Most terrorists are much more receptive to dying for their cause than their victims are, so they should not ask themselves how they would feel if someone wanted to kill them because they would likely say yes.
We need to take the golden rule one step further, through what I call the Ask-First Principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The moral doer should ask the moral receiver whether the behavior in question is moral or immoral. If you aren’t sure that the potential recipient of your action will react in the same manner you would react to the moral behavior in question, then ask. You will almost always receive your moral answer swiftly and without equivocation. And, as often as not, you do not actually have to ask the question to know the answer. The thought experiment alone should give you a strong sense of what is right and wrong.
The Ask-First Principle is not full proof, of course, just a small improvement on the already sound Golden Rule (again, I wrote about these in Chapter 7 of The Science of Good and Evil, which contains a fully defense of this argument. We need to reach another level higher to resolve moral dilemmas that are not resolvable by asking, and this next level is what I call the Happiness Principle, which states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else’s happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else’s unhappiness. I’ll discuss this principle in my next blogessay.