I cannot claim that my ethics are solely based on reason. Nor can I say that my sense of reason or my cognitive abilities are without their flaws. In light of this I must concede that my ethics are guided in part by my earnest attempts at logic, but also in part by my personal “desires” and “aversions”, to quote Hobbes. What I can say with sincerity is that I do try to be rational in all things, including my moral system.
I tend to look at ethical issues differently on a social level than I do on an individual level. To this extent I am something of an isolationist, in this case meaning that I hold myself accountable to a different ethical code than I hold society. I acknowledge that my ideas of ethics are rather antiquated and not at all practical on a social level. Essentially I feel that I have the right to live by a certain ethical code dictated by my own logic, but I have no right to say that everyone in my society must subscribe to the same. For example, I cannot offer a logical argument against people who have casual, promiscuous sex (STD’s and accidental pregnancies notwithstanding, but we are discussing the moral implications after all) but I would never engage in such because I feel that casual sex is a “simple” pleasure. I feel that an inclination towards such simple pleasures would compromise if not destroy my own dignity and lead to my ultimate unhappiness. But, I cannot hold other members of my society to the same standard.
Having said all that, I have yet to answer the primary question: How do I know what is right versus wrong? In a world as intricate and complex as ours, I feel we are seldom if ever presented with a dilemma this simple. I think that more often than not, the real question at hand is, what is the greater or lesser of two evils? It can be said with confidence, that it is wrong to intentionally inflict pain on another conscious being, or to allow it to suffer pain when something can be done to stop it. But what if that person or animal was suffering from an illness, and the only way to remedy that illness was to inflict some small amount pain in order to administer a medication? Would it then be unethical to administer that medicine? After all, to do so would be to intentionally inflict pain on another conscious being. So the real choice in this scenario is not between good and evil but between the lesser of two evils.
This is just one example, my best effort to illustrate my own moral system. I judge right and wrong actions based on their ultimate consequences. Were I to present this idea to David Hume, he might assume that by “ultimate consequences” I mean the benefit or detriment of my society. And to an extent he would be right, if by benefit he meant the well-being and true happiness of each individual and conscious being. Hume would agree that there is no definite “good” or “evil” as he defies us to answer “where is that matter of fact which we here call crime; point it out, determine the time of its existence” (134).
Kant might agree with my ideas, provided that they apply equally to everyone and thus are consistent with his categorical imperative. If my actions were truly motivated by a sense of moral duty to my society, for example if I anonymously donate a significant amount of my income to charity, then he might approve. But if I were to donate the same amount to charity, but had done so in my own name and boasted about it to everybody, then he would not consider it truly moral because it was done for my own benefit.