What is the simplest code of conduct imaginable that could be applied by everyone? Encourage desires that tend to fulfill other desires and discourage desires that tend to thwart other desires.
Thats it? That is really all you need to know but I am sure there are questions so lets here just very briefly expand what this means in as concise and simple way as possible, for now.
The central challenge here is the study of interactions between human beings in terms of "codes of conduct" and to evaluate these "codes" and to provisionally find the currently best one, if possible, until a better one is found or invented. Now everyone one has desires to fulfill, the desires just being the reason or motive to fulfill them. Still there are many ways any of these desires fail to be fulfilled - thwarted - due to, say, health, age, education, economics, the environment and so on. However here the concern is specifically with the interactions of one another that can thwart each other's desires, whether done directly or indirectly, deliberately or not, in the pursuit of one's own desires. When looked at this way, the challenge is to find the code that leads to the most desires being fulfilled. Now what could be simpler, given this expansion, than encouraging desires that tend to fulfill other desires and discouraging desires that tend to thwart other desires? Need more? I am sure you do. OK.
Well what is meant here by "desire"? Everyone has many types of motives or reasons to do anything, these are called appetites, needs, wants, desires (of course), preferences, interests, projects and goals and so on. We call all these collectively desires for brevity here. This is also because they share the same structure as desire - a desire being an attitude to make or keep something true - they otherwise just vary in terms of necessity, priority, resources, time, finality and so on. Now an appetite, say, hunger - the motive to seek food - is a desire that is to be fulfilled of necessity. There is no choice but to fulfill it otherwise one will starve. However, often, there is a choice in how to fulfill this hunger and unlike appetites, many other desires, are not necessary but optional. Only desires that have optional means of fulfillment or are optional themselves are the focus here.
So how do we evaluate these optional desires? We compare the desire to its absence, if its presence has an effect on other desires that leads to more desires being fulfilled or less desires being thwarted than its absence, then it is to be encouraged. If its absence leads to more desires being fulfilled or less desires being thwarted than its presence, then it is to be discouraged. Whose desires? Well everyone whose own desire fulfillment or thwarting could be reasonably affected by the fulfillment of the desire in question.
What if a majority has a desire that thwarts the desires of a minority? Well this is an accident of history. In another place at another time the mix could be different, indeed opposite. Just preferring the current majority is a quite arbitrary means of evaluation. A more robust code works anywhere and everywhere, not just here and now. The evaluation above solves this issue since it is robust over differing demographics. It shows the value of a fulfilled desire regardless of how many have it or not.
Surely we mostly do not have the time to work this out when we are busy fulfilling our desires? Quite correct. However, since we are all similar human beings, we all share the same mechanisms for having and fulfilling desires, so it is not surprising that there are a few common means of desire-thwarting that we all want to avoid. We could discourage these desires in everyone, or, which is the same, encourage aversions to fulfilling them, so that no-one wants to fulfill these desires even when no-one is looking. So on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis where we act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, without much, if any, time for deliberation or consideration, as long as we have these aversions, we do not act against these aversions, and generally act in a way that is not desire thwarting to others.
What type of aversions are you talking about and how are they justified? For example, nothing could be more final than dying. Again we are only concerned with the actions on us by others here, which in this case is being killed, which thwarts all our desires and so it is the absence of a desire to kill that is to be encouraged. That is it is in our interest to encourage this aversion to killing. This also applies to anyone we care about, we generally do not want them killed. The same goes for anyone they care about and so on. So it is in most everyone's interest to encourage an aversion to killing, whether the act is direct or indirect, by commission or omission, so we all have a reason to encourage an aversion to killing. By similar reasoning we could encourage aversions to violence, stealing, rape, slavery and lying.
An aversion to lying looks different to the other aversions, is this the case? We seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires. And we act to fulfill those desires, given our beliefs. Now if those beliefs are faulty we may fail to fulfill the desire or indeed thwart it. So it is in our interest to ensure that we have true not false beliefs in order to best fulfill that desire. With regard to the actions of others, a problem can arise if another injects a faulty belief by lying. The benefit to the person lying is that we could end up fulfilling their desire and not ours! Then by the same reasoning as above it is in all our interests to encourage an aversion to lying.
What if two aversions (or desires) clash? We seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires. These desires are activated or not given the specific circumstances we are in. We only get hungry when we have not fed for a while, the desire is there but inactive otherwise (unless one has an eating problem). There can be circumstances where two, or more, aversions are activated, which recommend opposing actions. If you know where the wife is, what do you tell the murderous husband? You have an aversion to killing recommending that you lie to him and an aversion to lying recommending that you tell the truth about her location. Since, in this case, there is more desire thwarting due to killing - and an aversion the husband clearly or, at least momentarily, lacks - this aversion usually trumps the aversion to lying. That is it will be the more and stronger of your desires to avert a killing than to tell the truth. Of course it is possible that it is not and so you tell the truth and you have failed to discourage desire thwarting actions (extreme in this case!). This leads to the next challenge.
How does encouraging these aversions prevent such desires not being acted upon? Unfortunately not even in an ideal world is it likely that there will be no killing, violence, rape, slavery, stealing and so on. This approach is submitted as the currently best tentative candidate to minimize the likelihood of these events occurring, plausibly arguing that this could be better measurably than existing codes and what presently occurs in the world today and most places in particular.
Why care about people I do not know? Why would they care about you either? The real issue here is that many might regard as something like the above aversions as quite acceptable but only applicable to certain others whether by relation, friendship, geographical closeness and other factors. However the stereotypical means of determining this is by in-groups and out-groups. If one decides another is in an out-group, it is usually accompanied by negative and unfounded caricatures, often used to justify any action, and, in extreme cases, no aversions apply and anything is permissible. Again it is always possible the you or someone you care about ends up in such an out-group and so it is in everyone's interest to encourage an aversion to, we could call it, bigotry and, in a less strong way, an aversion to double standards. This is compatible with the reality where if one could save a loved one, over a stranger, one still will and is quite acceptable. To demand impartiality all the time is an impossible demand but that does not mean has to give up minimizing the problems that partiality causes.
You have not yet said how one encourages and discourages relevant desires? Now you know enough to apply this. (1)You can consider situations that you have had or are in and evaluate them and see what you can learn. (2)You can then choose to cultivate appropriate habits based on your insights, so that any aversions and desires you lack are developed or strengthened. (3)You can reason with others using the same arguments here and indeed practice them so that you can say them in your own words reflecting your own understanding - However we all know that such discussions rarely work to get someone to change their mind particularly if they have the desire to believe what they believe regardless of the evidence and arguments - (4) So one can use emotional methods, consistent with one's understanding, to praise and condemn their actions to affect their desires. (5) Similarly one can appeal to their material aspects using reward and punishment, both the latter methods working directly on their desires rather than through their beliefs. (6) If and once they understand and agree with where you are coming from, you can get them in turn to encourage/discourage others as appropriate and you can use methods 3, 4 and 5 to encourage them to do this too!
This is all very grass roots how is this really going to make a difference? Well as already noted, regardless of how many practice and mutually reinforce this approach, there are always going to be a few - however well minimized - that will not respond to such encouragement and discouragement. On one level, the more this approach is mutually reinforced, advanced knowledge of who these are will spread and direct more consistent responses made as they are discovered - so making it more difficult for them to fulfill their desire-thwarting desires. On another level we need the law to deal with the extreme practices of desire-thwarting actions. The law needs to reflect this approach as another layer of encouragement and discouragement and for the protection of the rest of us. To the extent it does not or is variably applied we can constructively criticize, using evidence and argument, and also, if this does not work, condemn those who directly and indirectly support the current inadequate legal processes, especially those in the public eye. Similarly we can not only criticize, condemn and, if possible punish (by demanding resignations or not voting for example), those who publicly exhibit desire-thwarting behavior in any other domain - business, politics, religion, science, sport and so on and we can also condemn and punish those who support them as well!
There are many other factors besides our desires that affect our conduct, how can you ignore them? This approach does not ignore them. Yes there are a myriad factors and these have contributed to having the desires we do now have. These could be such things as our genes, biological, emotional and intellectual development, our home, family schooling, peers, friends, colleagues,work, hobbies, religion, politics, status, language, culture, ethnicity, exposure to other cultures, media, relationships, experiences, memories, injuries and illnesses, age and health and so on. Well whatever they are and however one has been influenced by them, the product of all these factors is the desires that one has here and now, so when one seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of one's desires, these are already included.
Still this is difficult to put into practice, how do you know what are the desires in question? Well it has just been shown, admittedly with broad and brief strokes, how this is put in practice. The empirical and pragmatic challenge is to identify the significant and relevant desires in that situation. Now there are many desires due to the myriad of factors just mentioned that might distort and affect the actual outcome. That is to be expected, the question is to find the specific desires, whose presence or lack can materially affect that outcomes. Time, resources and space may permit just a guess to an estimate to a more concrete determination of such desires, and primarily in terms of their fulfillments. Generally those at the affect of desire fulfillment's own desires are either generally affected adversely or beneficially or the specifics are apparent from the situation. The ability to do this may vary from situation to situation. The real question is are there any better methods to apply whatever the data challenges involved? The claim here is that this is the best tentative candidate now until another candidate is shown to be better.
OK how does this resolve major dilemmas like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and so on? This is a modern, empirical and pragmatic approach. It is provisional like any other empirical discipline and they all have at their boundaries challenging unresolved questions. When this occurs, what they do not do is dogmatically assert unjustified answers, neither do we here. In addition it presents a framework within which all these approaches could be translated to, the disputes then seen to be revolving around which desires count and do not, do they exist (in fetuses or the brain dead for example), what effects they have and what fulfillment and thwarting occurs given different approaches.
Thats it? Phew! Yes it is for now. This has been only the briefest (not as brief as I would have liked though) and lightest introduction to these ideas deliberately for general public and not specialist consumption. Tomorrow will be some answers to speculative likely challenges from all sorts of specialists such philosophers, scientists and theologians. I will also add acknowledgments for where these ideas came from, they are not original to me. There is a specific reason why the above was presented as it was and this will be revealed too.