My ethical theory and my ethics (they’re not the same)

A prolonged debate arouse on Scientia Salon (, concerning the expertise of philosophy, which led into a difficult disagreement between a couple of us who thought ethical theory was one field of expertise for professional philosophers, and a couple of professed ‘scientismists’ who thought that science could explain ethics and so essentially replace philosophy as a determinant of our understanding of ethics.

During that disagreement, I tried to approach the question from a historicist and eclectic point of view, trying to argue that ethical theory (both within the academy and outside of it), and debate, were necessary to explain how we change our minds and come to agreements on fundamental values in a reasonable manner. I tried not to interject my own ethics into the discussion, since that would have weighted the debate as one between differing ethical positions, rather than granting the validity of ethical theory per se.

I was surprised to find that my opponents kept assuming (wrongly) what my ethics were, since I refused to allow ethical theory to be reduced to simple biological function. Biology can certainly tell us how the brain responds to what might be called ethical stimuli, and evolutionary genetics may indeed tell us why we have certain behavioral dispositions that evoke ethical issues. But interactions between the individual and society require the capacity for a reasoning beyond our immediate feelings, since these are often in conflict with our social conditioning and with the feelings and thoughts of others. In other words, ethical thought occurs, and action commenses, in the process of social manuvuering. We have any ethic at all because this is a complex process of negotiation between various possible ethical positions and interests.

Which actually does indicate what my ethics are, in the social realm.
So I am about to give a snapshot of my own ethics here, some of which can be traced back to previous posts. I do so by reproducing a comment I made on Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True site, to an article by Coyne wherein he criticizes the effort of some aetheists to develop an “objective ethics” by which to counter the theistic claim that morality requires a divine standard. The theorist he mentions is Daniel Finke; I am not familiar with Finke, so my response was really to recent efforts along the same line by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

I never want to say to any ethical thinker, professional or not, to ‘stop thinking about ethics’! I firmly believe, the more voices, the better. I do believe that professional ethicists are better prepared with their understanding of the history of ethical thought, and their insistence on consistency, to clarify what exactly our ethical interests might be. However, I question the originating motivations of current atheists’ ‘objective ethics’ or rationalist ethics, or biology-based ethics, simply to counter religionist claims, primarily because we do have a history of ethical thought in this country, and also because this history has a very concrete manifestation in social action, the political effort to establish law.

But here is that brief comment from

“‘Objective morality’ appears to be a strategy to get the high ground from religionists on ethical matters. I think this is unnecessary.
There are always two ethics we live by – how the community functions and how the individual functions.
Communal ethics are a matter of political debate, not philosophy. Communal ethics in the broadest sense are codified as law. In a working democratic community, the law can be changed only by electing legislators to enact new law. I’m something of a Hobbesian here: The community decides the kind of world it does *not* want to live in and agrees to laws that inhibit the passions that would generate that world, while managing the conflicts of interest that such passions involve, through legal redress.
American communal ethics are already non-theistic, and it might be wise for atheists to insist on this, rather than suggesting some higher principle. I argue that what we do (and should) have, is a communal ethic that allows various and conflicting interests to be addressed, not involving an absolute determination of right.
Ethical philosophy can ask ‘what are our interests here?’ But it cannot take the place of political action or legislation. And these are all about interests, not about morality.
As for how the individual functions, that’s something for each individual to work out for himself or herself. Here ethical philosophy really can help. For me, I have found that an ethic reducing the amount of disappointment in life most effective. Others may prefer a way that enhances happiness, or makes them feel more ‘righteous,’ or more charitable. But that, again, is a personal matter.”

[*And ethical philosophy not only can but should do this, this is its necessary social function. Ethical theory, ethical reflection are always necessary preparations for future action.  Also, I am not using ‘interests’ here in a purely utilitarian manner, but rather pragmatistically, i.e., what we perceive as our interests, and what we hope to achieve through their realization. That includes personal values, but also values independent of personal benefit.]

Now a number of things must be obvious. First, as remarked, I am something of a Hobbesian; but also I am a social constructionist, and even something of a legalist. The ethics of the community come about through ongoing public discussion, debate, even conflict, but finally manifesting itself through agreement which becomes custom and, when involving direct political action, achieves establishment in law.

From my (basically Pragmatist) perspective, this means that any viable, reasonable ethical theory (professional or not) ought to be allowed to the table of public discussion and debate over shared values. This would include certain religious positions, whether we like it or not, but would exclude positions clearly transgressive of established values, such as Islamist jihadism and Nazism. Through discussion and debate, differing positions use reasoning and rhetoric, negotiation and compromise, to come to agreement as to which values can be shared and which remain the interests of differing parties.  This process finally distills into the actual political effort to persuade others, elect legislators, and establish law; or into social and cultural efforts to change attitudes and community custom.

(Again, my Hobbesian perspective here is that we engage in this behavior, not to produce the world we want, but to prevent society becoming what we don’t want – a world where values are determined by brute force.  It may be true that humans want to live together; but it is more true that we need to live together.)

However, the reader will also note, in my comment on WEIT, that I make an distinction, between community ethics, and personal ethics. This is very important.

In a complex society, the negotiations between individual and community interests not only makes possible, but necessary, a distinction between what values we share in community, and the values the individual holds for himself/herself. This is partly because individuals must suppress certain personal interests in order to live within the bounds of law and custom. But it is also, and primarily, because the more complex the society, the less predictably categorizable the values of the individual, which means the community cannot adequately address all such values. Law can address the need of two people in a committed relationship wishing to marry; but it cannot (at least not yet) account for someone comfortable with temporary serial relationships, or even multiple partner relationships. Custom can address the need of the elderly to be treated with deference, but it cannot adequately address some young person who (for whatever reason) feels some revulsion to the elderly and needs (to avoid conflict with the law) to suppress an urge to throw an old man or woman to the floor .

Now, it’s clear that the young person in question may need psychotherapy or other means to deal with such an urge; but this means she or he must develop a personal ethic that values such assistance. This may only be a faith in the assistance provided by social service agencies; but it may also involve exploration of Freudian analysis, religious counseling, meditation, cathartic expression in the arts, and so forth. Hopefully, the person may finally determine a personal value for the respect of the elderly, but perhaps he or she may only learn to live comfortably with suppressed urges. In any event, law cannot address this; custom can only provide opportunities. Exploring these opportunities clealry involves ethical choices only the individual wrestles through and can enact. (And of course, the person can always decide, “the heck with it,” and throw an elderly person to the floor; at which point the community intervenes, and the person spends some time in jail.)

Now, the smaller and the less complex a society is, the less much of this is applicable. Tribal communities, and restrictively religious communities, generally do not produce nor tolerate widely variant individual behavior. Homogenous communities usually develop strong inculcation techniques, in parenting, education, social reinforcement, and strict sanction responses, so the degree of variance between individual values and behaviors is quite limited.

But I do not live in an Islamic tribe in Afghanistan. Raised in America, and having to respond to enormous amounts of sensory and informational stimuli, I’ve led something of a quirky life, and have recognizably eccentric attitudes and behaviors. Consequently, I’ve had to patch together a set of personal values and ethical responses that allow me to live with relative comfort among my fellow human beings, who, I have noticed, have their own quirky and eccentric attitudes and behaviors, even if they don’t recognize these as such.

The ethic that has had the greatest impact on my personal development, as I have noted before, is Buddhist. But while Buddhism offers important ethical choices to a wide variety of individuals, it may not be for everyone; and need not be. Indeed, each individual really must develop his or her own personal response to the complexities of contemporary American life – which seem to get more complicated by the week.

I remember a Chinese philosopher once being asked, at a seminar I attended, what ethical theory he himself most identified with. He shrugged and said (paraphrasing from memory), “in China, we are Buddhists in the morning, Confucians at work, and Taoists when we get home at night.”  It is this kind of personal ethical malleability that American individuals may need to learn, as they confront an ever more confusing social reality.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s