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The Unbearable Lightness of Ethics

Stephen Anderson wonders whether talk of ethics has any substance.

When we were children we learned very early how to play a frustrating game of contradiction with our parents. We quickly figured out that an unremitting response of “But why?” or a relentless succession of questions about reasons could confound parental logic for everything:

“Eat your vegetables.”
“Sit up straight.”
“Go to bed.”
“But why?”

Mother soon came up with the only response that could ultimately shut us down: “Because I said so.” How we all hated that ploy. It seemed so doctrinaire, so arbitrary, and yet so final. Grumbling, we gave in, swearing secretly that when we had our own children we would not treat them so. We would be different: we would give good reasons for everything we did. We would not resort to such low tactics. Yet how strange it is many years later, when we ourselves have become parents, to catch ourselves resorting to the old tried and true rejoinder that so annoyed us when we were young: “Because I said so.” Arbitrary authority. Final answers. End of discussion.

Perhaps it is human nature to resent such arbitrary final answers, particularly in respect to matters which we deem open to personal taste, where we do not like to be hedged in. We do not like to be told that there are things which are simply off limits to us and other things which we are permitted to do. We like our freedom, our options, our choices. Perhaps this also accounts for our general distaste for moral judgments and our preference for ethics. Ethics seems somehow more adult, and certainly more sophisticated, than mere morality. Ethics seems to offer us freedom: morality reminds us of our mothers.

Ethics or Morality?

Most of the time we’re not even conscious of why some kinds of value judgments annoy us more than others. Perhaps we have never even considered the differing emotional payloads that attach to morals compared to ethics. Even in books about ethics one often finds the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ used interchangeably. But a little thought shows that common usage recognizes an interesting difference. It is common for example to speak of ‘professional ethics’, but less common and more politically problematic to speak of ‘professional morality’. Or to take another case, if an executive divorces his wife and marries his secretary he is less likely to be offended by the question “Do you think that is ethical?” than by the question “Do you think that is moral?”

The distinction between these two concepts is further underlined by the differing ways a person would naturally respond to such questions. If asked the former question, the executive is likely to respond with rationalizations such as “Yes; despite the natural power imbalance between my secretary and me, I have been careful not to manipulate the situation; and besides, my wife accepts my decision. Furthermore, there are no children involved…” and so on. What he is aiming at here is showing by some line of rational thought that his choice is reasonable, practical, or at least professionally permissible. On the other hand, if challenged on the morality of his decision, he is likely to respond with anger or defensiveness, perhaps with phrases like, “That’s none of your business. Who do you think you are? How dare you be my judge!” and so on. In this case, he recognizes that more than the reasonableness of his decision is at stake; the question of his relationship to some higher external standard has been brought into play. He has been called to court. It is this that he finds objectionable.

To put this difference concisely, when we speak of what is moral we are making reference to some objective standard of right and wrong – we may call it ‘Natural Law’, ‘divine precept’ or even ‘karma’ as we wish. In any case, the issue is whether some ultimate code of right and wrong has been either violated or upheld. In contrast, when we speak of what is ethical we are not implying any such ultimate judgment; we are merely asking how it might be possible to reconcile particular actions with reason, or alternatively, with social expectation. The thorny issue of right and wrong has been diffused into the less provocative terms of reasonable and unreasonable, or perhaps advisable and inadvisable. The sting of moral judgment has been dulled, if not completely removed.

The Secularity of Ethics

Once we recognize this distinction we see that morality is inherently a religious concept. This may seem controversial at first, but it need not be thought so. Morality is ‘religious’ only in the sense that it presupposes that a code of behavior could exist beyond what humans might be able to justify to themselves, individually or corporately; and this in turn implies the existence of some other kind of authority. (An unwarranted inference from this would be that non-religious people cannot behave morally, but such an inference would be manifestly untrue.)

In contrast to morality, ethics is inherently a secular concept, since it does not call for any grounds of explanation outside the human world. That being said, there is a sense in which we may speak of ethics as an adjunct to religion, and that is to the extent that ethics are a form of applied morality. Some writers, like Cambridge’s Simon Blackburn, argue that morality dispenses with ethics altogether. He writes: “[Religious] people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is [instead] an authoritative code of instructions, a handbook of how to live.” But this would seem to misrepresent the complexity of the practical debates which surround particular religious injunctions such as “Thou shalt not commit murder.” What constitutes murder; and how unborn children, the elderly and handicapped or the soldiers of the enemy fit into the definition, is a topic of much debate in religious communities. But to speak of ethics within a religious framework is substantially different from speaking of ethics in place of a religious framework; and it is this latter possibility which justifies my assertion that ethics is inherently secular. Ethics are capable of being presented in such a way as to dispense with religious rationalizations.

Or are they? That is certainly the aspiration of ‘Ethical Philosophy’ – that humanity might find a sufficient basis in reason or utility to dispense with the old religious guarantees of morality and not refer to ‘metaphysical’ sources ofauthority. The history of Ethical Philosophy is full of rationales for determining right and wrong without recourse to metaphysical hocus-pocus. For example, the Stoics invoked the overriding principle of ‘duty’, while the Epicureans called upon the pleasure principle. In the nineteenth century, J.S. Mill offered the famous Utilitarian axiom that the rightness of a thing should be determined by its tendency to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. More recently we find the Existentialists advocating the guiding principle of ‘authenticity’. Virtue ethicists draw attention to the importance of character formation, and pragmatists emphasize practical usefulness, and so forth. What is essentially held in common between these very diverse ethical rationales is the search for a universal principle capable of replacing “because God said so.” They all make their basic appeals to human reason, not to some kind of divine revelation.

The most optimistic, and arguably the most philosophically influential expositor of reason-based ethics was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Like so many philosophers of his day, Kant had a firm faith that man was ultimately a rational animal, and that reason could thus provide a firm ground for ethics. His most famous invention, the categorical imperative, taught that it’s right to do only that which one can “will that it, at the same time, should become a general law.” In other words, don’t do something unless you can want everyone to do the same thing in similar circumstances. To illustrate this point we might consider the case of the thief. To steal is wrong, according to Kant, because theft is a self-contradictory act: the thief wants to make someone else’s property his own, denying him property rights; and then presumably enjoy the very property rights with regard to his booty he has just denied its former owner. Thus, thought Kant, reason alone can show that theft is wrong – a job for which we formerly had to depend on religious law.

All this seems well and good. But there are persistent problems that face the ethicist, problems for which there are no easy answers. In fact, the main problem is not the wide variance among ethical alternatives: after all, it is always possible that one or more of them is actually right while the others are wrong. Thus the mere fact of their mutual contradiction cannot be the definitive problem. There are enough problems that all ethical frameworks share, regardless of the differences in the key principles they each affirm.

Persistent Problems of Ethics

We shall briefly consider four of the major problems.

First of all there is the problem of establishing any principle. No ethicists are able to give conclusive reasons why their cardinal principles should be definitive. For example, why should the good of the many outweigh the good of the few? (Mill), or why should pleasure be enshrined when pain appears so much more conducive to character development? Even the principle of reason is not unassailable, for why should reason rule, if as Friedrich Nietzsche argued, all rationales simply mask the will to power? Kant’s vaunted categorical imperative also falls prey to this reasoning, as one can ask where the law is written that people ought not to do what is self-contradictory. The liar knows very well that his lying cannot be universalized; in fact, he depends on this for the efficacy of his lie. The more others tell the truth, the more effective his power of dissembling becomes. Who can say he is ‘wrong’?

A second persistent ethical problem is the problem of compulsion. While we often fall into the habit of thinking that ethics is about how an individual can justify his choices to his conscience, this is less than half its real work. A lone individual need not concern himself with ethics at all, provided his conscience is not bothered. When he really needs to speak of ethics is when he is in the company of others as part of a society: this is when he needs to justify his behaviour, to achieve the approval of others, or at least their tolerance. But this agreement cannot be obtained unless he can compel others to accept his ethical principles. Yet there is no reason why his ethical preferences should be incumbent on others... Under such circumstances, ethics fails to deliver on its most important promise, the promise of deliverance from moral condemnation.

This calls our attention to one reason why moral and ethical language is so often used indiscriminately in ethics talk and writing. We expect ethics to deliver to us the same depth of vindication, the same kind of unassailable pedigree, the same social respectability, that morality implies. But ethical justifications may not have the cachet, the incontrovertible certification of virtue, that we might wish. To act consistently with one’s own values may in itself be laudable, but it places no logical necessity upon others to agree with or to share one’s value judgments. There is highly questionable power in ethics to compel a social consensus or the affirmation of values.

Another regard in which compulsion is a problem for ethics is that people face strong disincentives against acting ethically. It is important to realize that ethics only comes into play when there can be reasons for acting unethically. The word ‘ethics’ never needs to appear when a person has no motivation or context for doing the wrong thing. For example, we do not speak of the lottery winner who graciously accepts her winnings as an ‘ethical’ person. There is no reason why she should not be (or should be, indeed). On the other hand, we do speak of the doctor who denies himself a profit and jeopardizes his career by refusing to do unnecessary but lucrative surgery for an unscrupulous hospital as an ethical person. In this case, we admire him specifically because all the winds are contrary and he sails straight ahead anyway. The great marvel to us is that he finds in himself the fortitude to do the right thing;. But by what force is he compelled to do it, and by what measure do we admire him? How do we know our admiration is well-founded? By what authority do we judge these things? These questions lead us into a third problem, the problem of value-laden language. Ethical discussions are full of words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’, ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’. All these terms, and most ethical adjectives, are what we call ‘value-laden terms’: they are words which already contain implicit judgments. But by what standard can the application of such words be justified? The standard is clear enough if we can simply say “The Divine Being says so.” But it is far from clear if instead the rightness of our value judgments is the very topic that is on the table – which it inevitably is in Ethics. By using value-laden terms, the ethicist simply begs the essential question. If we say “pleasure is good,” by what standard are we judging its goodness? By the fact that it produces pleasure? But surely that’s a circular argument.

This leads us to the final and most serious problem with ethics: the problem of foundations. Quite simply, there is no reason to accept any ethical principle as definitive. Within the world of human affairs, there is no decisive reason to prefer one person’s definition of ‘the good’ over another’s, for example. There is also no reason to believe that the majority is always right, and no good reason to think that definitions of virtue are universal – and every reason to believe they are not.

The entire field of Ethical Philosophy is in this regard very much like René Magritte’s famous painting The Castle in the Pyrenees (1959). It shows a castle resting on an immense and substantial rock, yet all of it is established upon nothing. There is a great deal of weight and substance to ethical theory; yet the fact remains that we have so far been unable to discover the (or even a) foundational principle which might ultimately ground the ethical exercise. Ethical judgments remain continually vulnerable to that old question, “Why?” We live, so to speak, suspended in mid air.

The Redeeming Factor

Given this unnerving picture, we might grimly anticipate the impending moral disintegration of society, should the truth get out. But the redeeming fact is that the human race lives by moral intuition, not by logic. Somehow we seem to stagger on anyway, drawing on some nameless natural moral compass which keeps us from the ragged edge of moral anarchy. The old moralists used to call this ‘conscience’, but we don’t believe in that now. In any case, its durability is still suspect unless we can find some powerful, compelling reason to forge an agreement about what is good. We seem to have some natural propensity toward the recognition of moral behavior; it is our logical entitlement to such beliefs that remains uncertain. The essential question is whether or not the buoyancy of our optimism can indefinitely remain greater than the gravity of logic.

© Stephen L. Anderson 2007

Stephen Anderson is a high school teacher in Ontario and has written for a variety of magazines.

Hume’s Law

Some ethicists believe that it is impossible even in principle to find a firm foundation for ethics. According to this view, any argument which tries to derive a conclusion about what ought to be the case from premises which state only what is the case must be invalid, as you can’t ever have something in the conclusion of an argument which isn’t in the premises. This controversial claim that you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is called Hume’s Law, after David Hume who first hinted at it in A Treatise of Human Nature. (1739)


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