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Is a Philosophical Ethics Possible?

Richard Taylor explains how ethical reasoning is like travelling up an escalator, and describes the difficulties of choosing between competing systems of ethics.

I recently witnessed, from front row center, a debate between two titans: Professor Peter Singer, the most widely known and influential philosopher of this generation, who has faced threats against his life for his views on euthanasia and infanticide, vs. Father Richard John Neuhaus, eloquent defender of the conservative ethic promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. The auditorium at Colgate University, seating four hundred, was packed, with overflow in the aisles. And the question, perfectly framed to elicit a clash, was “Who shall live, and who shall die?”

Notwithstanding the explosive potential, the debate proceeded in civil tones. Of course everyone familiar with the two positions knew in general what each would say. Opening statements and arguments were put forth, followed by the customary rebuttals, and the remainder of the time was given to responding to questions.

Dr Singer thinks that ethics must be based, not on the concept of being human, but on the self-awareness and expectations that human beings generally and so vividly possess. We pursue happiness, conceived in terms of individual preferences, and eschew pain and suffering, and therein lies the basis of ethics. Our obligation, therefore, is to reduce suffering, and promote the conditions for general wellbeing.

These considerations obligate us to an ethical treatment of all beings capable of suffering, human or other. Further – and this is where the clash occurs – we need not protect those that lack such self-awareness and capacity for suffering, such as an anencephalic infant, an embryo that is lacking any semblance of a nervous system, or a human being in a persistent and hopeless vegetative state. Indeed, it is sometimes permissible, even obligatory, to destroy such beings, simply for the reduction of suffering in others. Hence the ethical legitimacy, under certain (not common) conditions, of infanticide and euthanasia.

Fr. Neuhaus’s premise is that human life is uniquely precious, and it is thus unconditionally wrong to take the life of any innocent human being. An anencephalic infant is human, likewise a severely defective fetus, or someone in a persistent vegetative state. In defense of this position he declared that civilization itself depends upon a conception of the human community resting upon the sanctity of all human life, however defective or deprived. This was his positive defense. The negative defense was appeal to the slippery slope. Unless we adhere without compromise to this principle then we embark upon policies that can culminate in horror and disaster. The Nazi holocaust, he noted, began when the first defective infant was put to death, a claim that is historically correct. Fr. Neuhaus did not consider hard cases, such as, what to do with a pair of ‘Siamese’ twins joined in such a way that both will perish barring an intervention that can save one, but not both, or an infant born so defective that it will never see, speak, walk or even sit, and whose brief tenure of life can hold nothing but pain, or the terminally ill, the prolongation of whose life would achieve only the prolongation of increasing pain.

Within the vast audience that watched this debate I doubt that anyone’s mind was changed, and Fr. Neuhaus, I think, shared this doubt. Those of conservative and religious orientation took comfort in Fr. Neuhaus’s capable presentation, while those of a liberal and pragmatic temperament delighted in what Dr Singer said.

The whole event did, however, turn my mind to a deeper philosophical issue regarding the role of reason in philosophical ethics.

Peter Singer believes that rational considerations, if followed, lead straight to his ethical system, and that traditional ethics rests simply on inherited custom, nourished by religion, to which people irrationally attach strong feelings. He is clearly correct with the respect to the latter. The widespread attacks on him, from the pulpit and the popular press, consist entirely of pointing with alarm to his views, with virtually no consideration of his reasoning.

But my question now is: What is the role of reason in ethics? Can we, as Dr Singer assumes, arrive at solutions to ethical questions by clear and correct reasoning from fact? On the answer to this question rests the very possibility of any philosophical ethics.

Dr Singer has graphically compared the process of reasoning to being carried upward on an escalator (see The Expanding Circle, p.88, Clarendon Press 1981). When you step onto an escalator you are carried step by step to a place, perhaps unknown to you in advance, which may come as a surprise.

He derived this powerful analogy from an account of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes came across Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, opened to a certain theorem which seemed to him plainly absurd. So he traced it back to the earlier theorems, which in turn rested upon still earlier ones, until he got to the foundations of the proof, which were self-evidently correct. Thus he was compelled, by reason alone, to accept the more distant theorem which before had seemed to him absurd.

Dr Singer believes that his philosophy, with its sometimes surprising or even shocking inferences, follows the same pattern. He begins with the obvious, that suffering is evil, and ought (therefore) to be reduced, that your suffering is no less an evil than mine, that the same must hold for the suffering of non-human beings, distant strangers… and so on, step by step, to some of the seemingly shocking conclusions that this escalator of reason yields. That these conclusions clash with our preconceived notions tells nothing against them. Hobbes was surprised at what Euclid’s steps led to, we are surprised when an escalator delivers us to some unanticipated spot, but we should be prepared for such surprises.

But what about the first step of Dr Singer’s escalator? He, I believe, would consider it obvious that suffering is evil, and (second step) ought, therefore to be reduced.

But note that Fr. Neuhaus steps onto a different escalator, the first step of which is the unique sanctity of human life, and (second step) it is therefore always unconditionally wrong to take the life of any innocent human being. And, of course, that escalator takes one in a direction the very opposite of Dr Singer’s.

But these first steps of neither escalator are based on any empirical evidence, nor, however plausible, are they selfevident. If they were, then they would not be questioned by any rational person who understood them.

That suffering is bad is, to be sure, obvious, but the next step, that we ought therefore to reduce it, involves a double meaning of ‘ought.’ Thus, for example, “there ought to be a cheaper way” means only that it would be nice if there were; it does not mean that anyone has a moral obligation to find such a way, whereas “you ought to honor your parents” carries the full sense of a moral obligation. Dr Singer’s second step, that suffering ought to be reduced, has only the first sense, but all the steps that follow quite improperly assume the second sense.

Fr. Neuhaus’s line of thought, on the other hand, involves no such ambiguity but rests, not on fact, but on a moral claim derived from religion and long-standing custom. That man is created in God’s image, or is in any sense possessed of unique sanctity or worth, is hardly self-evident, no matter how firmly and widely held.

Having noted that, we should next observe that, at the basic level where these two escalators begin, there are still others, leading in still more directions.

For example, a third begins with the requirement of personal autonomy, and soon leads to the obligation not to pay taxes to support policies one deems wrong.

And a fourth illation, (which is the one I am drawn to), begins with the claim that ethics has not so much to do with suffering, the sanctity of life or personal autonomy as with personal excellence, or virtue, as Aristotle understood it. Indeed, this was the presumption of virtually all the classical moralists of antiquity. That is (first step), human beings have the capacity to think, reason, and create things, sometimes things of great worth. No other creatures do. This is the uniquely human function, the source of all worth, as it is exemplified in people like Beethoven, Edna St Vincent Millay, Plato, Picasso, as well as singularly resourceful and courageous leaders like Winston Churchill, Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin, and so on. It is people like these who count, that have singular worth, and their virtues are what we should aspire to – not for any utility that derives from than, but because they are uniquely good. Some persons have these capacities in great measure, such as those just mentioned, while others – indeed most – do not. These latter are born, live out their lives to little purpose, and pass on, having achieved little that is worthwhile beyond fulfilling their own trivial needs or, as Dr Singer would call them, their ‘preferences’.

Where, then, does this fourth escalator take us? To the promotion of personal excellence or greatness as the supreme value.

By this reasoning it is not the hungry who are most deserving, nor the threatened, but the gifted. Feeding the hungry, diminishing the pain of the suffering, and protecting the helpless and the oppressed are indeed admirable, whether obligatory or not, but they do not measure up to nourishing personal excellence in its many forms. Homo sapiens is not, after all, an endangered species. We ought, then, at whatever cost, to nourish the gift for greatness which some, relatively few, persons possess.

What ethical system should a rational person uphold? What system should a philosopher embrace? Take a choice. Your reasoning, however flawless, will take you nowhere until you take your first step, that is, set forth your basic premise, and that, however fondly held and seemingly obvious to you, will be neither self-evident nor empirically verifiable. Some ethical systems are clearly better than others, but all of them elude proof, and will thus remain, forever, ideologies.

© Prof. Richard Taylor 2002

Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York. His latest book Virtue Ethics was published recently by Prometheus.

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