Ethics and the Third Person--a summary of the first two problems

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: I am here appending in several parts some excerpts from an unpublished book of mine, originally composed late 99/early 2000, wherein I work out a progressive synthetic metaphysic. The current topic is ethical grounding, and an analysis of problems along the three general lines of ethical explanation. The previous entry, which introduced the topic of discovered non-rational ethics, can be found here.

This material is taken from the beginning of chapter 31, "the problem with the third explanation of ethics". (In this book I tend to decap my chapter titles. {g}) As usual, I begin my chapter by summarizing where the argument has gotten to; so, since it has been a few weeks since my previous entries, this will serve as a handy catch-up summary-restatement of the gist of the previous entries.

....... [excerpted material begins here]

In my previous chapter, I explained why my argument has now led me to consider questions of interpersonal relationships; what we call 'ethics'. Generally speaking, there are three branches of explanation for 'what happens' when we behave 'ethically'. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive--I myself think all three branches, put together, account for my own 'ethical' behaviors.

But the first two branches are necessarily exclusive of the third branch in this fashion: they essentially deny that truly ethical behavior is taking place. What those two general theories claim, is that what looks like 'ethical behavior' to us is not actually 'ethical' behavior.

In the first theory, we humans invent qualities in order to justify the actions of the individual. [Footnote: The actions may be taken to satisfy instinctive wantings, of course.] These invention-behaviors are actively rational (not reactively instinctive); but the coloring of 'ethics' is merely a useful mask worn, or a game played, by the participants: because otherwise there would in fact be no effective justification for the individual to claim rights over the group.

In the second theory, the behaviors are merely the automatic reactions we humans, as humans, have to our environment, whether macroscale (the social level) or microscale (the genetic level). Like the first theory, a sort of mask is placed over the 'real' source of the impulses so that the individual has some power of justification within the social group.

Both theories, in essence, deny (so far as they go) that an interpersonal relationship is taking place.

For the second theory, the relationships have nothing to do with people as persons (merely as animals of a particular species or social group). For the first theory, the fact that other people happen to be producing the situation to be actively exploited or defended against, is virtually a coincidence--in principle, they might as well be fish or volcanoes.

I will emphasize again, as I did in the previous chapter, that this does not mean the theories are false (unpalatable though they may be). Nor shall I be arguing: "These are some typical explanations produced by atheists and philosophical naturalists; whom I have already refuted (I think); therefore, they are false." I don't think such an argument would strictly work; it isn't impossible that God (supernaturalistic or otherwise) could and would allow such behaviors to take place. Nor do I think the mere fact that no one (to my knowledge) who proposes such explanations actually applies them to their own selves consistently, counts against these theories being true.

I will say this, however: it seems to me that any proposed explanation of an effect that requires us to essentially ignore the explanation in order to accomplish anything worthwhile, is not likely to be capable of covering all the facts.

Here is what I mean. In the previous chapter [actually in a previous entry], I discussed the fact that the centrifugal force does not really exist. It is an illusion, created by the centripetal force. For most people, this distinction is trivial: the centrifugal force can be described and used like a real force. Most children can be easily taught that if they whirl a pail of water on a string at a certain speed, the water will not fall out. It pools instead on one 'bottom' side of the pail. That is the 'centrifugal force'. The real force being applied, however, is the pulling of the string toward the whirling child, with the pail trying to pull away according to its momentum in a vector-direction at right angles to the pulling of the string. Engineers typically calculate their figures (in such situations) using this force instead, for it is the actual corrective force being applied to the inertial movement of the pail: the centripetal force.

But what if a teacher in a college class explained this to first-year engineering students, and then continued along this line: "Although the centripetal force is the real force creating the illusion of the centrifugal force, in order to accomplish anything useful we must ignore the real centripetal force and apply to the false centrifugal force instead. It isn't only that using calculations of the false centrifugal force takes us less time to do, than what we could accomplish using the centripetal force; it's that if we apply to the real centripetal force as justification for our mathematic conclusions, it cannot be self-consistently accepted as justification, and what we are trying to accomplish will fail."

If I was the student of such a teacher, the first thing that would occur to me is: "This sounds like total drivel!" My next conclusion would be a reasonable suspicion: "Perhaps the centrifugal force really exists, but this teacher wishes to deny its existence."

Now, the situation isn't quite that bad with regard to the first and second explanations of ethics--the explanations that say ethics aren't really ethical at bottom--because a person might 'know the truth' and use that knowledge to effectively get results. But the use of that knowledge to effectively get results still depends on flummoxing the other people involved; the ones who do treat ethics as being objectively ethical.

As long as I think that you are merely inventing your ethical behaviors (and that I am also merely inventing my own), you will find it impossible to convince me of anything on 'moral' grounds.

Similarly, if you expect me to accept that my feelings about justice are only the result of automatic reactions to my environment, then you will find me laughing at you when you ask me to accept that such-and-such should be done 'because people deserve to know the truth'. If our concepts of justice are only the result of genetically induced species bias, then it is only genetically induced species bias that prompts you to say 'people deserve' anything (including that you 'deserve' anything)!

Be that as it may: I repeat once more that such an observation on my part is no argument that such explanations are not true.

[Next up: so now I'm going to explain that accepting God's existence as Lord of our lives, etc. etc., solves all our problems, and so we should therefore believe God exists and trust Him as the source of objective ethics... right? ah... hm... noooooo, not quite... {g}]

[A very abbreviated and incomplete summary of the several hundred pages of argument preceding these chapters, can be found in my July 4th essay The Heart of Freedom.]


Weekend Fisher said…
I doubt you'd like the Lutheran solution any better: our will is free within certain boundaries (things that are given into our control), but on levels above that (e.g. our salvation) we are free only insofar as we are in the presence of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, which set us free.

Take care & God bless
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks, WF. Though I half-suspect you meant to post this to Chris' 6/23 article on free will, predestination, etc. {g}

Still, not exactly dis-relevant to the immediate topic here, either. {shrug} {s}

Weekend Fisher said…
Yep, definitely, hit the wrong comment link. ;)
Jason Pratt said…
I guess I'll take that as a compliment, too, in a way! {lol!} {bow!}

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