Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Objective Ethics, morality reason judgement faith law meaning relativism death teaching children and honesty

An important point from the discussion today I'd like to highlight is that 'objective ethics' is a contradiction.

There are some systems of beleif that might argue that there is such a thing as objective ethics. For example, religions would assert a set of moral truths - "thou shalt" - which are universally or objectively (ie: true independantly of subjective construction or judgement) true because God/s said they are. And that the set of moral truths constitute an objectively true system of ethics. Alternatively a scientific or sociological approach might investigate the frequency of actual morals and moral principles across society. It might turn out that all cultures or persons hold one or more moral principles/imperatives in common, and that these may be regarded as objective moral standards. Or there might be statistically frequent ones, with confidence intervals etc which are more or less 'objectively true' prima facie from an empirical science point of view. Again these may be regarded as constituting an objective ethical system.


First lets consider terminology. I'll use philosophical definitions, rather than laymans terms, since we are philosophers (In laymans terms 'ethics' and 'morality' are little distinguished. Regardless of terminology, the distinctions are useful for our understanding of stuff). A moral is a 'should'. A moral statement is an assertion that we should behave some way as opposed to a statement that we do behave some way. Morals always involve a choice.

An ethical relation is one in which two or more 'subjects', capable of making choices, can make moral judgements of one another, ie: you should have done x, you should not have done y; it was wrong to do x; you are right; all people at all times should do x but you did y so you are evil... This might also be extended to other judgements, like you are beautiful, but lets stick with morals right now, since most people think of ethics as being about morality.

So it is 'unethical' to treat another 'subject' (like a person) as an 'object' (like a stone, or a tool, only). It is ethical when dealing with subjects to recognise that they are capable of constructing the world in their own way, their own opinions about reality, capable of making their own moral judgements, and their own moral judgements of your actions - and importantly, that they do so independantly of you. You never really know what another person is thinking, etc. In an ethical relationship you recognise that someone is like yourself, capable of perceiving and acting in the world, and of judgement, yet they are not yourself, and you cannot understand them in the sufficiently complete way you would understand a 'thing' or object (like a rock or shovel - whether animals can be subjects or to what extent, is debatable).

So then you have the morality of ethical relationships - what should we do to each other. I should treat people well. You should not treat people like objects. You should not treat me like that. You should use rocks this way, not like that. Everyone should obey the law. And so on.
But the point is, that ethics involves 'subjects'. And the distinctively ethical point about this relationship between subjects is that they are each capable of their own judgement. Because it is a matter of subjective judgement it is necessarily not objective.

This does not in any way devalue ethics or morality as a 'meaningless relativism'. Rather it compels us to acknowledge and respect each other and ourselves as arbiters, as judges. We cannot simply say "You're wrong acording to this book of objective morality here so I'll chop off your head". We cannot act lightly without considering the consequences of our actions. We can't assume what other people think without asking them. It compels us to negotiate instead of force, or at least to accept that to force is our own decision and judgeable by others.

It also is not 'meaningless relativism' in that we can talk to each other, and decide, for example that everyone should have a right to walk down the street without being murdered, so lets make a law saying murder is wrong. I wouldn't like to be murdered would you? And lets say, anyone who murders will be locked up by these other people who have decided to follow that through. We can establish moral principles. We can and do agree on them and fight about them. They are not meaningless at all. Because they are intersubjective, not objective, does not make them meaningless or any less important, quite the contrary - it gives each of us and our moral decisions more meaning that we could possibly have if morals were not our choice.

Each of us must say, "I am the arbiter of right and wrong."And each of us must recognise that each other person is too.This gives us enourmous freedom and responsibility.To say "I am the arbiter of right and wrong." is not to say "Yippee I can do whatever I want." On the contrary it makes us weigh our thoughts and deeds with gravity.

It can be hard and conscience wracking to figure out what is the right thing to do, or if we should care at all. But luckily we are equipped with reason so we can figure it out. Ultimately we can say we made the right choice at the time, given the information, no regrets - but only if we accept the freedom/responsibility of being a moral and ethical creature. It is typically when people give themselves over to an 'objective morality' that atrocities are committed.

One of the reasons religion is appealing to people is because it is hard to figure out what is right and wrong. (Notably many people who turn to religion are people who have really stuffed up their choices in life and have become desperate.) Life becomes easier if someone else tells you.
But I reckon that's a bit of a weak way to be a person (Blessed are the meek!). It is to relinquish what it is that makes you a person - your ability to judge and to choose. (Worth noting here also, that religious beleif depends on faith, not reason which is what we need for judgement).

I must acknowledge that I get a lot of this thinking from Emmanual Levinas - and also that this breif discussion doesn't nearly do him justice. I reckon no philosopher ought to be comfortable talking about ethics unless they have read Levinas' Totality And Infinity - so read it. On reading it - I have to say I didn't understand a single thing he said for 6 pages. Then when I finally did it was like a revelation and I understood what he was saying for those six pages. So - it's a difficult read at first, and it would be good to have a teacher, I beleive Chris Falzon knows Levinas, but once you get into it it is beautiful and thoroughly rewarding. I was almost religious about this book for a while.

On that note - I have no objection to philosophy being personal. Why do philosophy if it isn't relevant to you? Considering the discussion today, I'd like to add that reading Levinas was a significant factor in my decision not to abort the first 'accident' my wife and I had. It has affected my thinking ever since and been a good basis for deciding about how to relate to my children. They are like me, I will teach them, but they are not me, they are subjects and form their own judgements etc. The way Levinas describes love, fecundity, old age and children certainly provides an a-religious conciliation with death.

So when my daughter beleived in God for about a year or so, it was not vitally important to convince her otherwise. I never beleived that her beleifs could be controlled absolutely by me, nor the scripture teacher. And I was ready to accept it if she decided to remain a Christian. I was always honest with her about my own beleifs, which are very hard to explain to a 5 to 6 year old, but I did what I could to explain if she asked. One day she said "Now I beleive in God about a quarter." and that was all her figuring out - even at 6 years old. I never told her not to beleive in God. I didn't even say I didn't beleive in God. But that said, ours is not a religious household.

When there is no objectivity, no absolute truth, independant of us, what matters above all is honesty.

7 comments:

Rowan Blyth said...

Bill, you are actually drawing a distinction that as philosophers we should know doesn't actually exist. The words ethic and moral are interchangeable and have an identical meaning. Some people, myself included in the past and still to some degree, will make the distinction that you have drawn, but in reality an ethical relation is the same as a moral relation, as is an ethical law the same as a moral law.

This however means that an 'objective ethic' is infact not a contradiction at all. Interestingly you then go on to say that your 'relational' ethic is inter-subjective yet 'reason' will guide us to making good decisions rather than sliding into 'meaningless relativism'. Isn't this use of reason the same which underpins the entire western moral tradition, which is well known as for making objective ethical positions? Kant springs to mind as does Plato, but they are the obvious ones.

You must now demonstrate for your argument that that there is no objective ethics that there is no objectivity to reason, or otherwise you have fatal flaw: how will one agent making an ethical judgement that is aligned with reason be any different from any other agent doing the same?

This is not really an attack at most the content of your post, as it is generally not dissimilar to my own thoghts on the subject, but there are some elements to ethical theory which to date tricky to dodge, and substantiating a non-objective reason based morality is one of them. Likewise saying an ethical system lacks ethical agency simply because it is doctrinal or dogmatic is also difficult as this is the very premise of any morality.

Sladen said...

Rowan, you were up past midnight thinking about this - I love it. I'm never up past midnight anymore, and I've realised just how fucking wonderful that period of time actually is.

When you say
"how will one agent making an ethical judgement that is aligned with reason be any different from any other agent doing the same,"
I wonder if this is not a little too narrow a conception of the situation. Surely it is not only the application of structured, reasoned analysis that applies here, but also the specific values or weightings that any one agent will place on the objects/concepts/actions involved in the ethical judgement, values and weightings that are informed by the agent's personal value system. It is with this recognition that these ethical judgements must inherently be subjective, since we don't all value the same things equally. If one person values personal freedoms of choice quite highly, while another values health, safety and security, the same reasoned analysis performed by each of them will potentially yield very different conclusions on issues like smoking & drug use, seatbelts, and ownership of firearms, for instance.
All I'm saying is, there's a difference between an algorithm and it's inputs.

michael said...

My questions for Bill are concerned with the two statements: "each of us must recognise that each other person is too", and "But luckily we are equipped with reason so we can figure it out".
The first first. How do we recognise a person? Generally the answer comes whiplash back that we recognise a person as another who can make ethical statements. But if we recognise that because they are people they can make ethical statements, as you have suggested, then the general basis for recognising another person has been removed. Are we left to giving the benefit of the doubt?
Secondly the second. We may be equipped with reason, but we as a group certainly haven't figured it out. Is this down to Sladen's point about different inputs to an algorithm producing different outputs? If we were not equipped with reason obviously we would not be able to figure it out, but would "it" still be there, and if so, what would that mean for a subjectively relative system of ethics? (Here all I am altering is the power to work it out, not anything to do with an awareness that there is something there.)

Rowan Blyth said...

If an inter-subjective ethics is produced from inter-subjective reason, or maybe the ethic is the end state of the algorithm, and this is made up of a mass of inputs or ethical subjects which are reasoning away so the algorithm can perform its task, what if the reasoning reasons in a subjective direction permitting genocide of another inter-subjective algorithm?

Your algorithm becomes a larger more complex one until it encompasses all ethical subjects, so you would have eventually the one final inter-subjective ethic of all ethical subjects. If this ethical end deems genocide un-ethical, then the inputs which deemed otherwise were reasoning contrary to reason. If it deems genocide ethical, then they reasoned correctly, and those who reasoned that it wasn’t were wrong. If we appeal to reason to guide ethical behaviour, then we ultimately get to a point where you can say this person was right and this person was wrong.

If as Ming says, ‘different inputs creating different outputs’ and you appeal to reason, then you simply get different reasons, but the function of the algorithm is to find what is ethical, then the reason you run through the system will create its ethical system and this will be true for that reason.

If the inputs are to arrive at the desired outcome – an inter-subjective ethic, or an objective ethic, either will do, theoretically the end state should be contained in the inputs and as such this is the direction in which they will be inclined to reason is ethical. If they did not then the algorithm would not arrive at that outcome. As such there must be a sense in which what value is placed still conforms to some common reason, even if there is variation in the context. You still get the description of what is ethical is as ‘what is reasonable’.

Take reason out of the algorithm and you are little better off or at least you need to find a new set of inputs. I recommend the socio-economic algorithm if you want something a little Marxist, whose communist state is the point where the ultimate ethical end point is achieved – the point where all unethical inputs are in the algorithm. Again I am seeing the ability to say people are ultimately and very possibly objectively wrong.

Make the function of the algorithm 42 and you have the earth as a giant computer to arrive at the answer 42. Whether reason has any part to play in this is debatable.

Personally I still feel justified in asking how an objective ethic is by definition wrong if there is an appeal to reason contained within the premise.

Rowan Blyth said...

sorry edit

"...the point where all unethical inputs are in the algorithm."

should read

"...the point where all unethical inputs are removed from the algorithm."

michael said...

I agree that if reason from the same inputs produces the same outputs in terms of ethics and if there are only a limited number of inputs possible then one can end up with an objective ethic. But if there is no restriction on the number/from of the input then to claim that all the outputs make a coherent whole is stretching the concept beyond usefulness. And I think that while there are restriction on inputs they are only descrete limitings, not wholly limiting, in their nature.

the other question I asked still remains untouched: how do we recognise a person if a person is going to be defined as above? and this is relevant in the overall production of ethics, because we need to know who's calculations are relevant and whose are not.

OE said...

If you do not mind my addition here.

> Because it is a matter of subjective judgement it is necessarily not objective.

Everything is a matter of subjective judgement however we do agree that there are objective reality, right?

> We cannot act lightly without considering the consequences of our actions. We can't assume what other people think without asking them. It compels us to negotiate instead of force...

That is a good point. The objective is what people agree upon. Ethics is NOT an exception. It is objective, the problem is people still cannot agree on it. Why? Because to know objective ethics, just like to know objective reality, reason alone is not enough.

> Because they are intersubjective, not objective, does not make them meaningless or any less important

I belive inter-subjective is a bad term. The existence of self is objective. No less objective is existence of the other. Therefore social reality is not inter-subjective but objective - at least not less objective than objective reality studied by science. Or should we call science itself inter-subjective?

More about objective ethics: http://ethical-liberty.com
Thanks