Saturday, March 25, 2006

Question On The Nature Of Ethics

Is it appropriate to consider an ‘ethic’ to be anything more than the schema of norms adopted by an individual in the course of ethical decision making?

[Thanks Bill for the post that got me thinking along this particular line.]


michael said...

that's what the discussion in the post you refered to is about. Why don't you say something there then?

Casey said...

Well, I know book recommendations on blogs can be annoying, but there's an amazing analysis of "the nature of ethics" in Stanley Cavell's 1988 book, _The Claim of Reason_. Check out chapter 9 in particular, "Knowledge and the Concept of Morality."

MH said...

Michael, I really cannot follow how you’ve equated to the two issues, so I’ll try to clarify. I understand Bill’s discussion to be about the possibility of objectivity in ethics, and you’re particular bug to be the nature of persons. I’m interested in whether the whole ethical project is even worth continuing – hence the issue of whether it is possible to perpetuate the idea that there might be a correct system of ethics, like utilitarianism. My problem is that I’m keep coming to the conclusion that the whole ‘systematic approach’ is misguided … It’s a conclusion I’m not happy with. (I’m sorry if I’m missing nuance, but I’ve got a heavy workload at the moment.)

Further, I didn’t contribute to Bill’s discussion because I felt I had nothing valuable to add.

Casey, I’ll always accept a reference to a book. Thanks, I’ll try to track it down.

michael said...

But you began by proposing a system!...
And Bill's post is in favour of relative, intersubjective ethics.
If you've got something to say or ask about ethics other than 'it makes me sad' then say it or ask it.

Bill Pascoe said...

First let me say that one of the greatest virtues of reasonable people is they can admit when they are wrong. If streams of Western thought at various times beleived they had attained perfect objective knowledge, or that this was possible, or even that it was possible for ethics, it is equally true that many reasonable people have doubted this. Perhaps the main point here is to return to the main distinction between moral 'should' and actual 'is'.

In thinking about ethics we need to avoid getting confused about whether we are describing the way ethics is and operates, and the way it should operate. For example, I think most people would agree that there is a dialogue on ethics - that people negotiate ethics with each other, in some cases they propose objective moral codes, and others agree or disagree. That is what happens. I have said, luckily we have reason to help us figure it out - figure out answers to ethical and moral questions (which might be good or bad answers as we later figure out). We can use reason when we are negotiating - should you do that, should he do that, should we all do this, does this moral apply in all cases without question or is this an exceptional case. And we use it when trying to figure things out for ourselves.

So what I am suggesting is not necessarily that the way we 'should' do ethics is with reason. What I was suggesting is that if you don't have a religious leader dictating what morals you must abide by, or if you reject even the possibility of objective moral imperatives, you are not necessarily amoral, or nihilistic, or simplistically relativistic. I am suggesting there is such a thing called reason that can be used to work out morals - Should I do this? Well let's apply some reason. One feature of reason is that it is a way of figuring out, to the best of your knowledge, what the objective world is like, and what the best course of action might be. What the best action might be is quite simply, a moral. (an alternative to reason is faith eg: even though it doesn't seem reasonable for this circumstance the bible says I should do such and such, so I will.)

I would avoid saying that, "well if reason helps find the best course of action, then it must be the 'best' because of some criteria of evaluation - so acheiving that criteria of evaluation is the penultimate, and possibly objective moral". Some might say, well such a penultimate moral is 'survival', and of course there are arguments against that, or some might say 'happiness' etc. I would say that the way things are (not necessarily the way they should be) is that the criteria is not a single penultimate one, but may change over time, and be different in different circumstances. We're embedded in a process. One activity in this process is, at times, trying to figure out what the penultimate moral criteria is.

So should we seek such a penultimate moral criteria? If you want to be happy, then no! It's a wild goose chase mate. My suggestion in this dialogue is that to be happy we ought to see the way that morality and ethics works for what it is, and accept it. Knowing how it works helps you use it more effectively - you can be better at figuring out what to do, and how to be ethical. For example, I am happy treating people intersubjectively, instead of trying to find a set of ultimate morals that all *should* abide by. Note that whenever we propose a set of objective morals, we can never simply say "These are the morals." - we can only say, "These are the morals we *should* abide by". (or to put it another way - we can say "these are the morals" but we need to convince people of them, whether by authority and trust, or reason etc, and they choose to accept or not accept them) Morals always remain just that - choices - not objective facts.

I repeat - there are no objective morals. Hence there is no objective ethics, since ethics is about a relationship between two moral people - a system of ethics is something that people *choose* to abide by or not, whether they are *wrong* to do so, is again a moral judgement, not an objective fact, for the same reasons.

I still think the distinction between what someone thinks should be, or should be done (moral) and the relationship between two subjects (ethics) is an important one. It's a fruitful distinction for talking about this stuff. An ethical relation is essentially a relation between two moral beings. It can be unethical (in which one treats the other as if they were not a moral being - ie one capable of judgement, choice, honesty, deceit, admitting they are wrong, being reasonable etc). However, it appears this assumes an objective fact - that the two entities are in fact moral, and one treats the other as if they weren't (whereas the one being 'unethical' might assert that the other is not in fact a moral entity, not a 'real person' but just an animal, or a natural resource etc). I admit there are problems of relativism here - though I would have thought it would be pretty clear to anyone, that if person A is shouting "don't do that you bastard" to person B who beleives they are an object, then person A is capable of moral judgement (No sophistry here please! Just be honest.).

It would take too many pages to get into now, damn my time is too finite, but I'll mention subjectivity and objectivity below, and a 'relativistic' view that is not the annoying simplistic relativism we read about in the papers, but which accepts the objective world, our subjective construction of it, intersubjectivity and I think makes much more sense than both simplistic 'meaningless' relativism and hard boiled objectivism. It's a sort of pragmatic subjectivist realism - if we need to apply isms.

There are very big topics coming out of this dialogue (btw - has anyone read Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination? any literary people might like that one), which I should probably touch on, mainly:

- Personal Identity. I won't go into this much, it's too big. But we do recognise person's as person's. We do notice they resist us in ways that are different to objects, like rocks. They obey physical laws, like objects do, but they also make morals. If you push a rock it moves according to the laws of intertia - the outputs are clearly predictable from the inputs. If you push a person, they move according to the laws of intertia, but they also behave unpredictably - they might run away, stay still or punch us, hug us, ask us why we're so pushy. They can criticise the way we use objects, and the way we treat them. Our actions are not judged by objects, they are by persons. Even if a person behaves predictably, we have learned to recognise they might decide to change at any time. Induction often works for the way that objects behave (if you drop them they always fall, like they did every time before), but the famous turkey, fed corn every day, was dealing with a person and one day got his head chopped off. That turkey failed to recognise a person as a person (though even if it had, not knowing about Christmas, it would probably have been reasonable for it to expect more corn at Christmas - note the use of reason to make choices. Note also that it is not pointless and meaningless. A turkey that applied reason to make the choice to go to the person who usually has corn remains well fed for at least a year and that probably made him happy - but reason is fallible, and the turkey would be the first to admit it as the axe came swooping down. If the turkey had added, "You shouldn't do this to a turkey." it would have been an ethical situation.)

- Subjectivity and Objectivity
In contrast with Levinas' (the Lithuanian born philosopher of ethics) difficult to understand text, and almost poetic and lyric style (at least that's how it comes across in translation), Jacob von Uexkull's (the Estonian bio-semiotician) text 'A Stroll Through The Worlds Of Animals And Men, A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds' is a charming short work, entertaining to read.

Uexkull was a seminal bio-semiotician and this little book (which can be found in the library in the anthology - Schiller, Claire H, Instinctive Behaviour, The Development of a Modern Concept) is the most easy to understand and most sensible articulation and solution for the problems of subjectivity and objectivity I have ever come across. It made me wonder why the great philosophers bothered with all those long words, and why everyone is so confused and keeps arguing and poo-pooing subjective constructivism as meaningless relativism verging on solipsism and the chauvenistic naivety of emprical objectivism etc etc ad infinitum. I think it articulates subjectivism and objectivism in a way acceptable to both post-modernists and scientific types. Not only does it describe the subjective construction of the objective world, it makes it patently obvious to anyone that the world is subjectively constructed (do you think a fly, with it's different senses and nueral system, it's different needs and wants, has the same ontology and epistemology as we do?). It also describes how this is not, and cannot be meaningless relativism, because we subjectively construct the world in response to the real objective world, and if it wasn't for the real objective world, and our real needs, we wouldn't have need of this subjective construction. And what we subjectively construct is built from limited information from the real world according to what is important to the subject. And it's got pictures.

Yes there is an objective world. If it did not resist our whim we would not be conscious of it. Indeed there would be need to be conscious of anything if it did not have an existence indepenant of our direct control. But the way in which we perceive and interact with the world is through our perceptions (or phenomena) and body. What we perceive of the world depends on what is important to us. So all we see of the world is what is important to us - we do not see 'nakedly' with all there is to see, given transparently. Epistemology and ontology becomes situated, speculative and dynamic etc etc.

Anyway I'm running out of puff. I wish I could talk about subjectivity and objectivity more and clearer. I'm tired, long week...

Bill Pascoe said...

Oh and whats more - because there is an objective world, from which we form our subjective constructions of it, it is possible to be right or wrong, epistemically, about the world. That's what gets rid of the 'meaningless' from the 'relativism'. But it is not the transparent given absolute knowledge people usually expect from 'knowledge of the objective world' - perhaps it is in the phrasing. What we get is 'subjective knowledge of the objective world' (yes 'knowledge') which can change and can be more or less right or wrong, and we can discuss with other people who also have 'subjective knowledge of the objective world' but we don't have 'objective knowledge' (as in that naked, transparent, clear, given, unadulterated, free of noise, object in itself, absolute, unchanging sort of knowledge about the objective world). So extending from this, you can see how two people develop different moralities about what should be done in the world, and ethics, and can also negotiate morality and ethics AND get it more or less right or wrong (intersubjectively speaking).

Casey said...

Wow -- this is getting long. But I'm a Bakhtin fan... say more! And for the record, any system of ethics that does not transcend the situation of two individuals agreeing to abide by it seems to me almost entirely uninteresting. It effectivly represents the reduction of ethics to contract law, doesn't it?

Samuel Douglas said...

It effectivly represents the reduction of ethics to contract law, doesn't it?

Some people think that this is what ethics effectivley is, or at least should be.

Casey said...

Samuel, collapsing the distinction between law and ethics isn't a good solution. How do we decide which laws to write in the firt place? And how would we recognize unjust laws? Imagine a democracy that allows (by majority vote) for the legal enslavement of a minority group... that would be legally satisfying, of course -- but presumably not ethically acceptable?

Pete said...

Alright Casey, I'll bite the bullet.. you say transcend the situation of two individuals, but transcendence into what?

Casey said...

Pete, I guess I mean what we all are afraid I'm going to say I mean: that is, it seems to me (lately, at least) that ethics requires at least a dab of mysticism... If we are satisfied stopping at a description of the ethical moment, we have answered the "IS" question -- but in order to have a code of ethics, to have something that can answer the question, "How should I live," we have to respond to the "OUGHT" question. This is all David Hume's thinking, mostly. But unlike him, let's not be content with skeptical resignation.

MH said...

Okay, since it’s my question I’m going to intercede.

Casey, be that your appellation, a lack of transcendence would not reduce ethics to ‘contract’ law. I’m being pedantic. It would simply reduce ethics to a normative schema resembling common law. That is, a vast collection of norms that are invoked in various situations to assist the making of decisions. From my current perspective, I don’t think that this is as problematic as you seem to. Further, there is a considerable body of literature regarding how to determine the justice of particular laws; St Thomas Aquinas and other natural law theorists have much to say on this issue, as do John Austin and HLA Hart. You seem to be siding with the natural law camp, wanting there to be some necessary correlation between laws and moral principles.

Further, and more broadly, why is it that Philosophers keep approaching this problem (‘ethics’) with the intention of imposing systems on it? Casey has proposed that there needs to be something ‘mystical’ about ethics to escape a problem he considers to exist in Hume. The problem – as I am looking at it – is that the fundamental approach seems to be wrong …

Casey said...

Apologies for this (my last!) rejoinder. I DO understand how a person could not see this "vast collection of norms" as a problematic solution; there may be no need to continue the discussion.

From what I can tell, one is either of the "natural law camp" or of the utilitarian/materialist camp... like Bentham or Austin. In terms of arranging society, the utilitarian approach works wonders.

So the question is an old one: do you mug the old lady and take the twenty dollars in her wallet? Utilitarians can only suggest one ought not rob the old lady for fear of the justice system. But what if there exists a certainty about committing a crime and not "getting caught?"

I guess if that's not an interesting hypothetical question, there's not much left to say.

(Anyway -- thanks for the enjoyable dialogue!)