Ethics, science, philosophy

Beginning in the 17th century CE, one of the tasks assigned to philosophy in the modern era has been the hoped-for construction of a secular ethics clearly distinctive from that of the Roman church, and yet not so complete so as to prohibit differing points of view between different Protestant congregations. Apparently modern philosophers were to have sifted through the metaphysics implicated in the new natural sciences and from these derive general principles of human behavior. The project was headed for disaster right from the start. We now know that much of nature does indeed operate according to mechanical principles; but we also know that no moral or ethical teleologies can be derived from mechanical principles. One can hear the objection: ” well but a good machine operates at peak of efficiency in all of its parts work together in harmony; surely this indicates that human society achieves the greatest benefit for the greatest number when all of its parts, that is its human resources, also work in harmony. ” But to assume that the telos of the social machine is the greatest good for the greatest number is to impose the value of human enjoyment on the model of a system that has neither good nor evil for its end purpose; it is the human mind that decides that a machine has any purpose at all. A machine has no purpose in and of itself; it’s simply runs and runs. It operates or does not operate. It functions, and that is all it does. The whole notion that a machine could have an inherent purpose derives from two fundamental mistakes of logical narrative. The first is to assume that the Deist watchmaker god, constructing the universe as a perpetual motion machine, could be anything more than an ironic, almost flippant, metaphor. A god that could construct a universe would need pre-existent materials from which to construct it; that’s not the creator, that’s the handyman, hired to do an odd bit of labor and then disappear. But even if we allow such a god to construct the universe as a kind of wind-up doll to watch operate as a form of amusement, god’s amusement can hardly ground the primary thesis of any teleological ethics. After all, its as easy to imagine a god amused by human suffering as one amused by human perfection.

The second mistake is to assume that efficiency could be have a positive value in and of itself, that is, that efficiency could itself constitute a standard of the Good to which humans ought to aspire. We can see this in the argument noted above: The “efficient” society ought to be expected to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Since “efficiency” is a quality of an act, it cannot be the telos of that act. In fact, it has no telos at all, since it really accomplishes nothing, it only assures that any given act assumed to be “efficient” will accomplish its telos in the shortest time and with the least effort possible. Just as the most wretched instance imaginable of the problem here, consider the effort of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews: one of the most efficient social operations in the history of Europe. Many theorists would like to shuttle this problem off into the useless debate concerning whether “the ends justifies the means” (the Nazis’ own assertion) – which is utterly irrelevant. Assuming a good end, the limitations on the means attaining it should become obvious – thus Augustine says, “love God, and do what you will”. When this is not altogether obvious, it usually turns out that the supposedly good end is not so good as had been supposed. Reading this back into the Nazi extermination campaign, what we see is that the end – destruction of an entire population simply because a handful of German dolts felt uncomfortable around Jews – is in no way ethically debatable. And also beyond debate is the efficiency of the operation undertaken – which tales us flat out that efficiency counts for nothing whatsoever in the realm of ethics.

Well, what then could Moderns really have attained by restructuring human society as an analog to physical or biological processes? Putting it bluntly: nothing. Many modern thinkers have believed that the problem lay in determining the “right” analog, the appropriate physical/ biological process, to use as a model. But from whence was this “right”, this “appropriate” supposed to be derived?

According to Darwin, species of life forms evolve.

But human society is not a species of life form, it is the accumulative experience of individual humans working together for the common good. Therefore, if by “evolve” we mean what Darwin meant, human society may change, but it does not “evolve.”

According to Mendel, genetic traits appear according to a statistical average.

But a human who can lift 500 pounds at a weight-lifting contest is not a genetic trait, nor is he/she exhibiting a genetic trait; what she/he exhibits is the inevitable result of a great deal of proper physical exercise and training (and possibly the use of steroids).

We know that molecules are formed when two or more atoms share electrons.

But marriages are formed when the laws of the community say they are, and not before. And in America, mate-swapping is technically illegal in most states.

We know that when a foreign object somehow gets into the body of a mammal, the body will probably respond in a manner we call “infection” or, more violently, in the manner of an “allergy”.

When the Chinese first began immigrating to America, they brought with them, right from the start, a dedicated work-ethic, a shrewd business sense, a remarkable facility for languages, and arts and crafts refined over centuries of civilized culture. Those European-Americans who opposed Chinese immigration did not act “infected”, they acted like thugs; those who welcomed the Chinese lived happily ever after.

There is no way to extrapolate human ethics from the data collected, or the theories adduced, in the study of the natural sciences. Atoms are not generated, nor join into molecules, to provide any human with a guide as to how to swap mates. The very idea sounds silly, yet it isn’t far from the notion that a “proper” analogy between material processes and human social living can be discovered – which is really grounded on the unadmitted presupposition (feeling? intuition? faith?) that these processes came into being so that we could discover analogies between these and human behavior. Could intelligent human beings actually believe this?

Modern philosophy, as an effort to integrate the discoveries of science into more general human experience, has accomplished a great deal, and has more to accomplish as science progresses. But it cannot extrapolate an ethics based on these discoveries, which (as Hume would have predicted) always concern what is, and never what ought to be.

My own sense is that our ethics are a matter of law and politics, and personal choice – really a matter of interests in a field of competing interests.

So, perhaps, philosophy cannot produce an ethics; perhaps all philosophic thought can accomplish is a meditation on the origin and possible ends of any ethic. That has its own importance, which thus assures the survival of a “philosophy of ethics” as distinguishable from any other intellectual pursuit. But it can never itself become an ethic, for philosophy must not close any door that might be worth stepping through by someone at some time; but a practical ethic closes doors without any recognition that these exist. We either do the act, or deny it; once the choice is made, there is no turning back.


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