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Do we benefit more acting ethically or unethically?

Do we benefit more acting ethically or unethically?

When we do unethical things, it is widely assumed that our gains are outweighed by our losses. However, this widely held assumption is currently being challenged by the reputable academic philosopher, Professor Paul Bloomfield, in his monograph, The Virtues of Happiness: A Theory of the Good Life. Bloomfield argues that it is always better to act ethically than unethically. Likewise, theologians have argued that, even if you benefit within the earthly realm, you will then be at a disadvantage come the Day of Judgement, those who acted unethically will be consigned to hell and those acting in an ethical manner will be consigned to heaven. This notion also survives as a remnant in ‘common sense thinking,’ that you should never do bad things because you will be worse off than before. Regardless, then, of the potential overwhelming gains received by acting in what seems an unethical matter, it is commonly believed with weak and strong arguments, faith and superstition, habit and custom, to always act in an ethical matter.

There are lots of reasons that seem to justify acting unethically in modern society: for instance, your desire to benefit over another’s misfortune, in the same manner as somebody previously benefited by treating you unfairly. Although to follow this type of reasoning, according to Ghandi, “an eye for an eye makes the world blind.” Another reason to act unethically is the possibility of satiating desires forever unfulfilled when acting in an ethical framework, such as the desire for lust, power, control, forbidden desire.. Interestingly, in juxtaposition to this, in general humans become anguished over the notion that the nature of existence is “dog eat dog” and that “life eats on life,” unless, of course, they are already on top of the pile. That is, the nature of a ''dog eat dog'' existence doesn't concern those at the top of the pile, as they’ve managed to be the animal consuming the other, deriving their benefits and the advantages of being so. This brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘master-slave morality, in which it is only unethical if I’m the animal being eaten, and I will instantiate these values to justify that I am the animal eating. 

 If those our the reasons for acting in an unethical manner, what reason do we have for not acting unethically? A fairly obvious reason against acting in an unethical manner is that you must live knowing that the impact of your actions can spread through society like a cancer, inducing the morality of “he’s unethical, so I can be too.”  In an interesting cognitive dissonance displayed by most of us, we yearn for a world that promotes goodness, to live in a world full of harmony and benevolence, yet we forget or are ignorant of the lasting consequences of our unethical actions that directly contradict such a world-view. Evolutionists tend to identify that altruistic ethical actions brought to emerging societies a culture of trust and co-operation, allowing societies to flourish into the modern day equivalent. To act then in an unethical manner is to undermine the culture of trust needed for co-operative endeavour, from romance to commerce to creating world peace. A society in which cannot trust within itself is doomed, eventually, to failure.

Some of us, if not the most of us, will act unethically in trying to propel ourselves ahead. It may be simply that you want more money to buy that dream house, to get an interview for that job you've been working towards, or to pass the university entrance exam in the hope of giving your life the best possible foundations. But by ignoring the rules you may have unfairly deprived somebody else the opportunity of attaining these goals who, in fact, without acting unethically, worked hard to achieve the same attainments. Unethical behaviour damages not only a society but the lives of individuals within it, both the victims’ and perpetrators’. How meaningful is your life if it is punctuated by the unethical treatment of others? Sages and ancient wisdom tell us that a well-lived life leaves the world better than we found it, not worse. If you unfairly take advantage of others, you're squandering an important gift and a humanistic duty: the gift of having been allowed to live, and the gift of making a positive contribution to the world and to others.

And you probably are unethical, most of us are sometimes without really thinking about it. Although, and without doubt I am one of us, we can probably remember an instance when we acted unethically to our apparent advantage only to regret it now, wishing we had not done it and could take back the mistake - ultimately, in retrospect, the advantages derived from acting unethically were less than the the pain and suffering inflicted on others it took to get it.

But, interestingly, and rather fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an isolated point of view. It’s really true, according to recent studies in neuroscience, that acting unethically to receive all the advantages out of your reach when acting ethically really does not pay.  I remind myself that those who choose to behave unethically mainly do so for mere material possessions. Studies find that the rich aren’t more content than those of modest means. The additional pleasure that derives from a new Lexus versus an old Toyota, a 3,000 square-foot house in a Hollywood neighbourhood versus a 1,200 square-foot cottage in a modest community, a 5-star European vacation versus a Motel-6 one, is rarely outweighed by the distasteful things many people do to afford such things. Whilst, in direct contrast, most of humanity can attest that, looking back on their lives, they felt more content when they thought of their honourable work, their selfless love and in being fair and kind to everyone (even those who did not deserve it).

Now, one of the great human attributes is the power of imagination; we can metaphorically, by the leap of the imagination, step into the other person's shoes, and attempt to feel what they are feeling, whether it would be a pleasurable or a painful experience. So we can imagine (as best as we can, and never attainable to the real experience) the euphoria you would feel if you were to score the winning goal for your country in the football world cup, the happiness when you see a person you love smile, the anguish, the utter heartache, when that same person eventually dies. Taking this into account, then, it seems that we can reframe the problem of why people act unethically to get what they want, as this type of problem is a problem of ignorance, or more poetically, a failure of imaginative identification.

That is, we get, understandably, so caught up within our own consciousness, reverently desiring to achieve aims and ends that we consider important and intractable to us, that not only do we dogmatically assert that we deserve to get these things, but also it can reach the point that sometimes we feel that we are the only person with problems of finances, exams, achievements and relationships and so forth. That by our desperate, often pathetic unethical, actions we directly affect other people in negative and harmful ways, that without even realising it, without conscious intention of doing so, we make others suffer unfairly for our own selfish desires. The point is, satiating your desires is fine, in fact, you should do so, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it; and if, you can only satiate the desire by acting the wrong way, maybe you should think about it again.

We can characterize and contrast this lack of imaginative identifcation in the following two types of people, what I differentiate as ‘The Solipsist’ and ‘Those with Otherness.’ The Solipsists is the type of person that only forever thinks about himself, he only considers his happiness and his pain, his life, his opportunities to succeed and his weaknesses that he has to hide from others. Generically it can be said that these individuals, these Solipsists, lack empathy – empathy: imaginative identification of the situation, feelings or perception of another. He sees other people only as objects, as useful possessions, and his thoughts are directed continually to this question: how can I use them for my own ends? Can I manoeuvre them, disregarding what they want and the pain they will feel, to satisfy my own desires? His perception, rather than taking other individuals as a “thou” – an individual with a consciousness that experiences its own pleasures, pains, dreams, hopes, fears and problems - sees other individuals as a “that'' – a thing, a monster, an object that can be manipulated without remorse to satisfy the means and ends of the Solipsist

It is not, when we take into account these considerations, hard to see that empathy, and its corollary of imaginative identification, is at the heart of ethical actions. After displaying empathy towards someone that otherwise we could take advantage off for our own benefits, it’s usually because we wouldn’t want them to feel the pain or suffering that would result from aforementioned action: because it’s the same feeling of pain and suffering that we ourselves would rather not experience. Based on this characterisation, then, The Solipsist does not imaginatively identify the other person with those feelings of pain, suffering, anguish and misfortune – he perceives them as a “that” rather than a “thou”. He surely knows in a rational sense that the other person has a consciousness with all its trappings, but he simply does not know or cares what it will feel like to be that person after the Solipsist manipulates him for his own ends

For those who are more unethical, prohibiting yourself from taking advantage of someone may boil down to a rudimentary calculation, a “cost-benefit” analysis, a type of unethical negative utilitarianism (deciding on whether to act unethically depending if the suffering of the Other outweighs the happiness you will likely receive), which is probably more applicable to the general population per se, rather than taking an absolutist point of view, that an individual would not act unethically on any circumstance because of the suffering caused to the Other. On the “cost-benefit” analysis it is likely to factor other variables into consideration – how important or pleasurable it is for you to personally satiate that desire? The relationship between you and the other person(s)?  The ratio between the suffering caused and the pleasure gained for you to partake the unethical action?  It may not be a simple case of one outweighing the other, but rather the pleasure received would have to outweigh the suffering caused by the ratio 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 etc.

Those with Otherness, on the other hand, as you’ve probably gathered, are those who are less likely to act in unethical ways because they perceive Others as a “thou”, and are therefore able to empathise with them through imaginative identification. They see other individuals as real people, not means to be manipulated to their own selfish ends, but rather individuals with their own pleasures, fears, pains, hopes and dreams.

Obviously within a real life context, these distinctions between The Solipsist and those with Otherness are not so artificial and clear-cut, it is more likely to involve a continuum of types ranging from the extreme Solipsist to the extreme Otherness, with those in the middle sharing Solipsistic and Otherness tendencies. Moreover, such distinctions are also likely to pertain to different aspects of an individual’s life that he deems important. For example, let us suppose it’s true that Hitler consigned millions to death due to his political megalomania, saw Jews and other nations as things, as “thats”, to be manipulated and coerced to his political ambitions and advantages – this is a clear case of Solipsism – but by all accounts he was a doting, caring, loving father to his family. This would count as personality traits of having otherness.

Now, as we move into the 21st century, with corruption apparent in the highest echelons of banking and the collusion of government, and it can feel that we are in the age of the Kali Yuga, the ethical impulse in some individuals, groups and society is still apparent. Here’s an example of a man, whose worldview is that of otherness. Zell Kravinsky



Zell Kravinsky with the recipient of his kidney donor

Zell Kravinsky with the recipient of his kidney donor

Zell Kravinsky (hereafter: ZK) started with nothing and made millions, and then gave away his millions in order to live a mere ethical life. But giving away his self-earned millions was not enough, he decided to donate one of his kidneys to a financially poor women that he did not know, he gave a kidney to a stranger. That morning in July when he gave away his kidney, he sneaked out of his house so that no-one in his family could stop this extreme ethical act. His wife, Emily, did not want him to do it because not only did she fear he was risking his life, but there was a slight chance that one of his four children might need that kidney in the future.

ZK displays the air of a rhetorical ethical philosopher with his beliefs that it is unforgivable that somebody should have two houses when other people are homeless, and by extension of the same logic, nobody should have two kidneys whilst others struggle to live without one.

ZK is without doubt a complete antinomy to the current milieu of the current generations that live in the world: most people in this world are striving to become millionaires, or very rich, whilst there are the ZK’s in the world, who are giving their millions away, the defining acts of philanthropy – many billionaires give away millions of pounds to worthwhile causes, but how many remain billionaires or millionaires in the process? I’m not saying they should commit themselves to this type of action but it is interesting to think about. Are you more of a philanthropist if you give away the only £5 you have in your bank account or if you give away only a few million pounds when you have several billion? The ZK family did not act like millionaires. They live in an older twin home; Kravinsky drove a battered '86 Toyota, giving it up for a minivan only when friends expressed fears for his children's safety.

  These are a few of the things that ZK has donated to:

-          Made a large donation to the Wordsworth Academy, a school for special-needs children

-          Created a $6.2 million Adria Kravinsky Endowment for Public Health at the CDC Foundation, to support the work of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kravinsky didn’t have a suit to wear at the announcement. He purchased one for $20 at a thrift shop.

-          Donated a million square feet of Ohio commercial real estate worth $30 million to the Ohio State University school of public health.

 But ZK does not think that it is enough to just give money to improve the state of the world, for acting in the name of the “good”, especially when there are other ways to improve the world. As he says “I should just give all of me to those who need me, whether it is my body, my money or myself.” It goes further than doing the heroic act of giving away a kidney; it may be volunteering your labour or intellects to worthwhile projects away from your personal interests, rather than being a vessel for your own life. According to ZK, you should sacrifice yourself to the “good,'' that is, shifting your own worldview away from the Solipsistic to a worldview of complete Otherness. Many will feel uncomfortable with this assertion that we should sacrifice ourselves to the “greater good.” It is clearly an extreme type of personality and lifestyle, although this by itself does not denote it as necessarily being false.

A fascinating aspect of ZK and his worldview of Ootherness is that the logic of his actions leads to this very damning conclusion: either he’s insane or were selfish, not doing enough to help others. As ZK himself says with his persuasive rhetoric, “if you could do more, and you’re not doing it, why not?”


The following story is supplied by Jerry Schwartz at simplysharing.com : Some time ago, Kravinsky read an article in the Wall Street Journal about kidney donations. According to The National Kidney Foundation, 59,255 Americans are on the waiting list for a kidney donation; 3,641 died last year, waiting. African Americans are especially in need -- they represent about a third of those on the waiting list. Kravinsky took the clipping and put it in a drawer next to his computer. A plan was hatched: He would donate a kidney when his round of philanthropy had ended. "I thought of it as a treat to myself," he says. "To give a kidney would be vastly satisfying." He wanted to donate his kidney to a low-income African American person, so he chose Albert Einstein Medical Center, which serves heavily black North Philadelphia. But he says the hospital tried to dissuade him -- because Einstein feared lawsuits if something went wrong, he theorizes.
Not so, says Dr. Radi Zaki, who performed the surgery. The reason Kravinsky was grilled by the doctors and sent to a psychiatrist was to ensure that he really wanted to do this. Yes, he was sure. Zaki had performed 200 kidney transplants, but he had never taken a kidney from a living donor and placed it in the body of an unrelated recipient. "To me, when I first saw him, I thought this person must be a Communist," Zaki recalls.
In early July, hospital officials introduced him to Donnell Reid. They talked for two hours, and she told him the story of a hard life -- orphaned by age 8, she had suffered through an abusive relationship, then worked as a counselor for a hot line for abused women. She learned she suffered from hypertension only when her kidneys shut down. Eight years of dialysis had taken its toll. They talked about how they both liked to read, and how they both liked poetry. At no point did he give any indication that he was wealthy. She thanked him, but he said he deserved no thanks, because he should be doing far more. On July 22, Kravinsky left his house in the early morning, long before his family awakened, and went to the hospital. The surgery lasted three hours.
Kravinsky’s wife, Emily, learned about it that day at the supermarket, when a newspaper headline caught her eye. By then, her husband's right kidney was attached to another woman.
But despite his wife’s disbelief, he speaks quietly but intensely as he ticks off his defences. First, the danger was slight -- one in 4,000 donors suffers complications. Second, the chances that his children might need a kidney some day -- and that a sibling wouldn't have a better kidney to contribute -- are minuscule. Besides, he asks, how could he refuse to help a woman suffering from a very real, very serious illness because his children might someday be sick? And why are his children's lives more important than other people's lives. "They say charity begins in the home. I don't know why it ends at home," he says.
He has gone public with his donation because he hopes it will inspire others to donate organs, he says. Any glory, he says, was outweighed by the criticism he has faced, and by the anger of his wife, who threatened to leave him. Emily Kravinsky, a psychiatrist, did not return a call seeking comment. "We're working things out," her husband says.
Singer Pat Boone is trying to help. Boone, who champions a U.S. Blood Donor Registry through the Web site - http://usblooddonors.org/ - contacted Kravinsky after he heard about his donation. He wrote to Emily Kravinsky, urging she reconcile with her husband.  Zell Kravinsky, he says, "is an American hero." The Pennsylvania House of Representatives agrees. It passed a resolution describingKravinsky as "a shining example of humanity and beacon of compassion."
 Letters arrive daily, praising him. Among them, of course, are pleas for help from people who have maxed out on their credit cards, or fallen behind on mortgage payments. He's written a few checks, he acknowledges. He could never give enough, never be good enough. Sometimes, he thinks there is a thin membrane separating him from a perfectly moral life, and if he just pushed a little harder, he could press through it and love everyone and be totally self-sacrificing.
Still, he probably will not try to donate his other kidney, in deference to his wife and children. Instead, he's looking into other donations: his bone marrow, a lobe of a lung, perhaps a part of his liver, anything he can give, anything someone might need. 


While Pat Boone, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Donnell Reid (the recipient of the kidney), agree that his actions are heroic, there are those that think the complete opposite. It is fairly well-known that ZK has received death threats due to his ethical actions, since he is a mirror that reveals how “selfish” and  Solipsistic we really are. Kate Fratti, a columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times, thinks that ZK is beyond selfish. “From my vantage point," she wrote, "Zell Kravinsky is no better than any person who'd consider turning his back on his or her young family to fill a personal need -- another partner, an addiction, the need to 'find himself' in mid-life, or in Zell's case, self-glorification."

Whether you see ZK’s actions as heroic or not depends, rather trivially, on the background assumptions of one's worldview – whether you see your body as an individual temple or part of the collective. But Fratti’s remarks seem far-fetched to be judged as proper criticism, since ZK’s actions do not appear to come from the Solipsistic well-spring. It surely cannot be the case that an action cannot be ethical because the person wants to do it for his own personal means. If that truly were the case, then, most seemingly ethical actions would not only be selfish, and away from the “greater good”, but actually in the domain of “Solipsistic actions”. Even if we consider ZK actions extremely egotistical, although the prevailing psychological tests that were applied to ZK before the kidney donation surgery commenced ruled out such a mindset, then he seems to still see other individuals as human beings rather than “things” to be manipulated for his self-glorification. Considering the backlash he has received from his wife and peers would constitute an ill-judged decision, he still seems to care for the welfare, well-being and the suffering of others.

Fratti also seems to see things as either an unethical personal need, or an ethical non-personal need, but why should we pour scorn on any action that is committed for the “greater good” when the individual has a personal need. Take these two examples that clearly reflect you can: (1) you save the world by blowing up a meteorite but you sacrifice your life in the process, you do it because you love humanity and the world. However, you clearly know that you would receive mass adulation but only posthumously. (2) You’ve studied all your life for a cure to cancer, and eventually you find a vaccine that successfully cures it. The only reason that you chose to study cancer rather than warts is because the staggering complexity of the task, and the great reward for civilization. An offshoot is that you would be revered as a great scientist. Can you really follow Fratti and believe that these actions were unethical, an addiction for your oversized ego?

Introducing the case study of ZK implements a more general point when viewed under the lenses of the “Solipsist” personality and those that see the rest of us with the eyes of “Otherness.“Now it’s possible to focus on the two distinctions of an ethical and unethical life. ZK's kidney donation is rather symbolic, although an extreme case, about giving yourself up for the greater good of humanity. Although it is clear after moments of reflection that we can be ethical throughout a single day without sacrificing anything of ourselves. In most cases, an individual is unethical so that they can receive benefits for themselves and get what they desire at the subjugation of the suffering and misfortune of another. On the other hand, to lead an ethical life, in the extreme example of ZK, is to improve the lives of others and to reduce their suffering and misfortune. It is clear that the distinction does not need to be so obviously radical. There must be an opportunity to live an individual life that does not increase the suffering and misfortune of another person intentionally, without sacrificing your life for causes bigger than oneself. An obvious example is to buy free-range eggs rather than eggs from caged hens, as caged hens are subjected to torturous livings conditions.  Daily, we willingly act unethically so that we can save a tiny bit of money – its rather unsurprising that such examples feature as an illustration for the exploitation of capitalism.

Do we hurt ourselves by acting unethically? And do we benefit more by acting ethically? The jury is still out on this, since we are never able to compare our lives with the ethical decisions and the unethical decisions factored against each other. But this article has illustrated that by following ZK’s lead we can always do more to help others, even if not to the same extreme ends. However, despite our ethical acts, there will always be someone or some institution offended.  On the other hand, by acting unethically and encouraging unethical behaviour, we live in a world in the hands of the Solipsists and this leaves us more vulnerable to being moved around like playthings and to be treated in a dehumanised manner



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Morality And Self-Interest
Oxford University Press, U.S.A.


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