Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Are Ethics the End of Reason?

2180030841_d3f2efa4da_mWhen someone deems your actions “unethical,” they generally mean, “your actions do not conform to a specific ethical standard’s notion of ‘right action’ and thus belong to the category of  ‘wrong action’.”

When you ask them the basis for their ethics, they will have two possible answers. On the one hand, they will refer to an authority who has established the ethical code and infer that you should abide by the code out of respect or obeisance to said authority.

On the other hand, and this is the post-enlightenment tendency, they will justify their ethical standard in terms of practical or utilitarian concerns regarding the outcome of actions deemed wrong.

Here is where conflict arises. No ethical standards can be immediately or unproblematically derived from the world of phenomena, particularly when the phenomena in question are social in nature. The ethical conclusions drawn in this way from or against any particular act are dependent both on the detailed knowledge and accurate depiction of the human situation concerned – both areas in which certainty is, for the most part, provisional.

Dispute is always possible when we are describing situations in human life and particularly when we are claiming that, “given situation x, action y, will lead to outcome z.” In the realm of science, the experimental method stipulates that exceedingly rigorous conditions be met if someone is to even make the claim, let alone experimentally verify, that, given x, action y leads to outcome z. In fact, the experimental situation is intentionally artificial, the connections between x, y, and z demonstrably tight, and the conclusions peculiarly modest.

Unfortunately, in human life, given the number of variables involved in even the simplest interaction between two people, let alone the complexities inherent in the multiple highly interdependent or even very weakly linked interactions that compromise any social process, ethical standards that are justified in terms of “inevitable” outcomes of specific actions are either trivially few or unquestionably questionable.

Yet, herein lies the conundrum. If you question the ethical standard, you are pointed to the utilitarian reason behind it. If, however, you question the utilitarian reason,  you are quickly accused of questioning the ethic.

It becomes clear that the ethic itself is not seen as the product of social consensus and thus open to revision or dispute. The apparent argument from utility reverts to an argument from authority. Thus, if you are questioning the ethic, you are implicitly questioning the authority. If you are questioning the authority, you are in opposition. If you are in opposition, you are an opponent. If you are an opponent, you must be overcome.

Any conflict that cannot be resolved via dialog and compromise, must be resolved by force. While such a resolution may be “comprehensible,” to the extent that it follows the laws of physics, for example, it will not be “reasonable.”

Disputes over ethics are sad and the sadness stems from weakness. The proponents of a particular ethical standard resort to force in order to silence opponents because, sadly, they do not possess the power that could transmute their ethic into law.

Image Courtesy of “T” altered art.

Category: Enlightenment, Ethics, Thinking Out Loud

Tagged: , , ,

4 Responses

  1. “No ethical standards can be immediately or unproblematically derived from the world of phenomena, particularly when the phenomena in question are social in nature.”

    Have to dispute this. The standard of good and evil and thus, morality, stems from man’s life and and his requirements for survival. The fact that man is a living being, capable of dying, is what necessitates ethics and morality in the first place. Morality (personal code of values) and ethics (guidance in dealing with others) must serve the end of promoting life. That is, unless the person crafting either of them wishes to achieve suicide or genocide, respectively. Man’s life is the standard of good.

    Man’s nature, as a being who lives and dies by the use of his mind to advance his life, requires freedom from coercion and force. Voluntary association is moral association, which does not invalidate an individual’s tool for survival by forcing him to accept that which he does not wish to accept. Governments are instituted to prevent this moral boundary from being violated, the initiation of force between people. Much of the western world, post-Enlightenment, has followed this model. But I personally believe that we’re regressing.

    I agree that the baseless argument of authority has driven morality for much of mankind’s history. It has usually been justified by the explicit statement that the rights of “society” or “God” override the rights of the individual. And the sacrifice of the individual to these idols has been enabled by one thing in particular: the morality of altruism, which believes that sacrifice of the individual to whatever definition of “good” the collective currently deems “moral,” is the height of nobility. Few have stopped to ask: just what kind of morality is it that requires the sacrifice of your interests and even, in some cases, your life?

    The resurrection and justification for Enlightenment era principles of governement lies in the metaphysical facts of man’s existence–a being which lives or dies by the use of his brain. And he WILL live, IF: 1) he chooses to use his brain to improve his life and 2) his peers allow him to do so.

  2. admin says:

    Justin – I appreciate you taking the time to post this lengthy and thoughtful comment and I apologize for not responding in a more timely fashion.

    While I am sympathetic to the pragmatic and existential standard of ethics that you describe here, I do not believe that it contradicts the line from my post quoted by you.

    Choosing the right to survival of an individual, thinking human being as the basis for moral and ethical norms is perfectly understandable and, as you point out, characteristic of European culture for the last three hundred years or so. However, it is not a norm that “immediately or unproblematically” arises from natural phenomenon.

    The main problem is that the individual human is an abstraction. On the one hand, it abstracts the human organism from its own physical substrate: we consist of billions of cells, themselves consisting of countless carbon atoms and water molecules. The individual body is an aggregate, embedded at an even deeper level in the quantum flux and we individuate it as a matter of convention.

    On the other hand, it abstracts the individual from the greater mass of humans and structures of human society from which it inevitably springs and upon which it is entirely dependent for at least the first several years of its life.

    Asserting the primacy of the individual’s right to survival over and against the right of the social unit (family, village, country, etc.) to continuing existence and growth is no more natural or unproblematic than the contrary.

  3. anonymous says:

    How much should we attach ourselves to what we know, and can pin down in words, verses what we’ll know in the future, or could know, or even feel?

    Some of us when we were young, didn’t even imagine what a blog was, youtube, facebook, yes we use it everyday. The amount of information in issue NYtimes is more than 99 percent of the people read in their whole lives in the 19th century.

    Is it cruel to determine what the maximum human population is for our planet, and make it a goal to never go over that? Is it cruel to determine the maximum amount of carbon our world can absorb and never go over that? Who should be in the dark without coal fired electricity? Is comfort always going to mean the possibility of cruelty to others? How much comfort is enough? Will humans be able to determine that? How much “fairness” is enough?

  4. anonymous says:

    is there reason to survive?