Ethics and the Third Person--monotheism and the third explanation

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: I am here appending in several parts some excerpts from an unpublished book of mine, originally composed late 99/early 2000, wherein I work out a progressive synthetic metaphysic.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 summarized problems with the first two general theories of ethics, can be found here.

This material continues chapter 31, "the problem with the third explanation of ethics". I won't be getting to the actual problem of the third explanation yet, but I will be introducing the third explanation and generally comparing it to the previous two.

....... [excerpt begins here]

What I will now concentrate on, is the third general theory. This theory proposes that ethics are, at bottom, objectively 'ethical'. According to this theory, when we behave 'ethically', then (at least some of the time) we are discerning, recognizing, and attempting to correspond to an aspect of objective reality that has the property of being 'ethical'.

At this point some people will pop an association and from it infer: God exists, God is good, thus ethics are objective.

This is a little too simple, for reasons I will cover presently; but there are strengths to it which should be considered, too--just as there are strengths and fatal weaknessess to the two previous general theories mentioned up to now.

A person who explains our (and his) ethical behaviors as being utterly ultimately produced by automatic reaction to non-rational causation, doesn't bother to say that cytosine and other genetic proteins are 'ethical'; and he doesn't bother saying this, because cytosine (as far as we can tell) is not rational and so does not intentively initiate actions. It merely reacts. The actual 'standard' of ethics under his theory is not itself 'ethical'.

On the other hand, the person who explains ethics as being rationally invented by humans, means that ethics are not intrinsically a part of fundamental reality--because humans haven't been around forever--and also means that if there are 4 billion humans, there are potentially 4 billion ethical standards. If those standards happen to fairly closely coincide with one another in practice, this is basically a fortuitous coincidence fostered by the common environment shared by groups of people. [See first comment below for footnote here.] The concept of murder, for instance, becomes a sliding average: it means one thing now, it meant something a little different 100 years ago, it might have meant something rather different 1400 years ago in a different society; and if there happen to be unchanging characteristics to the definition of murder across these times/cultures, this is only a result of we rational animals not having changed our behaviors, tolerances or understandings during that slice of history.

Such ethics are purely subjective in reality, although in practice the mass weight of the floating average of opinion about what constitutes 'murder' gives a sort of quasi-objective standard for purposes of comparison. However, the floating average is not itself objectively ethical. Its shape is, in essence, a coincidence of history; it could have been something else. In such theories, 'some types of killing can be or always are wrong' is not in principle a statement like 'The sum of the squares of the two shortest sides of a right triangle, is equal to the square of the side opposite the right angle'. It is a statement more like 'Currently the English word for such a shape is "triangle".'

Now, it is an objective fact that the current word in English is "triangle"; and it is an objective fact that at this moment there is such-and-such an average of opinion in the United States as to what constitutes murder. But it is also an objective fact that our English word for "triangle" is merely a subjective convenience, purely dependent upon superinducing circumstances of more-or-less trivial character; and under this ethical theory, so is our average opinion (or average opinions, in regard to disparate social groups) about murder.

The objectively ethical standard therefore must be something personal, and it must be something at the ground of reality so that it depends upon nothing else but itself.

And those two requirements combined, are simply another description of God.

Very well. For most theists, this is plain sailing; and they may consider my discussion up to this point to be a lot of verbiage to get to what they already accept to be true.

What I want my brethren to understand, however, is why sceptics often have such a hard time with this. [Footnote: Also, I have not exactly 'gotten to it' yet; I have not yet argued that an objectively ethical standard must exist. Instead, I am about to explain why the mere existence of God does not necessarily entail an objective ethical standard!]

[Next up: the fatal problem with theistic ethical grounding. Yes, I said 'fatal'. Sceptics should be jumping up and down and cheering about this. For a while. {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.]


Jason Pratt said…
There was a footnote in my original text which was long enough I didn't want to interrupt a paragraph (much less a sentence) with it. So I'm appending it here. (Um, about a day late. {g})

....... [footnote follows]

There is a subtly different but far more philosophically robust secular position similar to this, which I will be discussing a couple of entries from now; at which time I will be referring back to this general theory for comparison and contrast.

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