Ethics and the Third Person -- An Introduction to the Question of Ethics

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, concluding chapter 30, can be found here.]

[This entry starts the 3rd Edition of Section Four, "Ethics And The Third Person", and constitutes Chapter 31, "An Introduction to the Question of Ethics"]

In the previous Section of chapters, I inferred characteristics of God's relationship to Nature, and of Nature to myself in terms of its necessary properties, to account for some of the situations I find myself in. And I took as the chief example of this, the Golden Presumption itself: I can act, and thus can think; and you my reader can do these things also, and thus we can reason together. But now that I have examined the concept of causal relations, I have progressed by necessity toward the concept of personal relations.

There is a personal relation involved in this very book: I am presenting to you an 'argument' for you to judge--not merely for you to react to (either arbitrarily or determinately), but for you to actively analyze and discern, and even for you to refute if you judge with your active searching that my abstract link of principles does not in fact 'link'. I am asking--I am expecting, I am requiring--for you to be a person when you judge my argument, for otherwise I would not bother presenting an 'argument' (as such) to you.

My own active estimation of possibilities and impossibilities might still take place--indeed, I must be active in that fashion or else I would be implicitly denying any claim to even possibly being correct; although that denial would itself be an implicit assertion that I can act! But if you could not act, then I could not be arguing to you, per se.

I am willing to believe that you can act. It is a raw charity on my part. It is, perhaps, the most basic of personal relationships: I am willing to allow that you are a person, too.

Personal relationships involve active choices on our parts. Therefore, although they can be analyzed (to a certain extent) along the lines of automatically necessary cause/effect relationships, the raw choices introduce a special sort of indeterminacy in our descriptions of the relationships involved. We express this (in English) with an equally special group of words: 'should' and 'ought', which (for my present purpose) are more or less interchangeable. 'Should', however, is a word connected to the English word 'shall' which often has more to do with causes and effects than with the special indeterminacy of personal relationship logic.

If there are twelve apples in a box, and if I take two apples from the box, and if no other changes happen to the apples in the box (or 'all other things being equal', which is an important and usually unstated necessity for statements of this type), then there shall be ten apples remaining in the box. This is a description of a causal necessity.

On the other hand, if you personally have put the apples in the box, and if I have not received your permission to take the apples, then I ought (or should) not take two of the apples. There is no guarantee I will not.

Whether I take them or not, the physical relationship can be described according to mathematic necessity. But a different type of relationship is described in my understanding that I ought not to take the apples from you; even though the relationship is still judged using logical analysis.

The logic of coherent interpersonal relationships, is called 'ethics'.

There have been a very large number of attempts to explain what ethics are, what they are not, and how and why we think in terms of 'ought' and 'should'. Perhaps the most basic topic of the existence of ethics involves the question of what 'actually' happens when we behave 'ethically'.

Are ethics a set of rational behaviors we invented? Or is an ethical behavior something that happens to us irrationally which we explain and account for later if possible? Or are we discovering and putting into practice objectively self-consistent principles that retain their quality of 'ethicalness' above and beyond our own existence as a species?

Let me point out that all three of these general explanations of ethics entail that we perceive ethics subjectively. But the first two types of explanation involve an ethical grounding which is itself subjective, although in two different ways. The third class proposes that what we are subjectively perceiving is nevertheless itself an objectively real ethical relationship.

Put another way: the first two types of explanation propose that the pool we perceive in front of us is a facade, whether it is one we painted, or whether it is heat shimmering on asphalt or sand so that it looks like water. The third explanation proposes that the pool we perceive in front of us is a pool, although how much of the pool we are seeing is another question. (Are we seeing it through trees? Are we seeing deep into the water, or only the surface? Are we seeing the streams or the rain or any other source for the pool?)

There are difficulties for each of the three general explanation proposals. I will mention here, however, reporting ahead a bit, that the three proposals, while describing mutually distinctive event types, need not be mutually exclusive as a total accounting for our ethical behaviors. All three types of event might, in theory, be happening--depending on what the characteristics of actual reality are.

Whether all or any of the three can serve as proper ethical grounding or not, is a different question; which must be considered as well in regard to each of them.

And that is what I will start in the next chapter.

[Next up: an introduction to invented rational ethics]


Jason Pratt said…
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