Ethics and the Third Person -- Ethics and Invented Rational Behavior

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, Chapter 31, can be found here.]

[This entry constitutes Chapter 32.]

As noted in at the end of the previous chapter, ethics have typically been given one or more of three broad types of explanation.

In the first class, ethics are proposed to be an invention of us humans. This is one way that ethics are proposed to be rational. (But only so long as the underlying philosophy self-consistently affirms that we are capable of active reason.)

Notice I said an invention, not a discovery; a discovery would entail one of the other two options.

This proposal happens to be popular among atheistic naturalists, including (although not limited to, and not necessarily found among every variety of) secular humanists. I have already argued that atheism does not, of itself, self-consistently allow for human rationality. But I would be wrong to try to apply such a blow here. I will not argue that this type of explanation is accepted by such-and-such a philosophy, which I think I have already refuted, therefore this explanation is consequently refuted. On the contrary, I have already insisted (and I think even demonstrated) that a contention subordinate to philosophy 'A' might still be grounded by philosophy 'B'.

For example, this first explanation might also be given by a pantheist or by some types of supernaturalistic theist (such as a nominal deist). I myself even can, and do, give it in a way!--which I will discuss later. I am only using a secular humanist as a convenient example, not because this explanation is intrinsically linked to secular humanism. Some secular humanists attempt to appeal to a discovered actually ethical standard of rational behavior; and still others attempt to appeal to a discovered standard of non-rational amoral behavior instead. Moreover, in practice, secular humanists are just as likely to combine all three kinds of appeal into a total case as I am! So all three attempts are represented among them; but these other two kinds will be covered later in their own categories.

That being the case, for the moment I simply wish to examine this general class of 'explanation for ethics', as well as the other two afterwards, on their own terms.

The point--and the weakness--to a proposal of invented ethics, is that what we are describing and expressing by inventing these "ethical relationships" are not themselves, in fact, ethical relationships.

A proponent of invented ethics would probably grant, that due to ignorance of actual causes, and also due to traditional habits of expression, very many people might think that when they behave ethically they are referring to an objective standard that is itself "ethical". In much the same way, most people think there is a centrifugal force (which pushes you left in your car seat when you sharply whirl your car to the right), although in fact there is no such force--the centrifugal force turns out to be the outer show or reflection of the real force at work, which is centripetal (pulling in toward the center of the arc, not outward at a shallow angle). But the centrifugal pseudo-force can be mathematically described and even used as if it was a 'real' force; and so for most people (although not for engineers) the difference is mainly semantic.

But in the case of invented (not discovered) ethical systems, the difference is not only semantic: it means that whenever anyone behaves as if an objective ethical standard can be applied to, her attempt to apply such a justification can be explained away; thereby removing the (only apparent!) justification she may have had for arguing that she (or someone else) ought to do something. Here are some examples:

'If we as Americans take seriously, as a principle, the idea that the American people should each shoulder their fair share of taxes, then the tax laws ought to be examined with an eye toward redistributing the current load, because under the current load about 60% of the tax income is provided by 1% of the American citizens.' -- 'You are only saying this, because you fall into that 1% bracket, and wish to pay less tax yourself.'

'If we as Americans take seriously, as a principle, the idea that the American people should be free to express their beliefs about religion, then we should have parity in the schools so that our children can learn tolerance and charity for other people, and can express their beliefs without fear of ostracization.' -- 'You are only saying this, because you are a non-Christian whose child is attending a school where the children and teachers are (apparently) 99% Christian.'

These are two thorny ethical claims. But the proponent of invented ethics avoids the thorns altogether: they are not actually ethical claims (as far as she is concerned), even if they seem to be ethical in quality; and therefore (as a quite reasonable tautology) there can be no moral justification or moral imperative for even discussing the questions, much more for attempting a reformatory action.

You may have noticed, by the way, that such a theory about the origin and subsequent weight of ethical behavior--that such descriptions mask a ruthlessly practical series of rational actions--tends to evaporate the moment the shoe is on the other foot! This kind of secular humanist will argue just as strenuously as any person who proposes the reality of human-independent objective ethics, that the requirement for her child to be exposed to a theistic belief clause in a pledge of national allegiance simply is not fair; and she will expect her audience to perceive and understand the principles, and will castigate the school publicly (to great critical applause in the press) if the school refuses to change its policy of using that phrase.

In her theory of social dynamics, ethics are a socially acceptable and useful mask for the principle that 'power justifies action'; in her own social practice, she is very likely to stridently declare that the power of a group is not (more specifically should not be) the ground for the actions they take.

None of this, by the way, is an argument that this kind of secular humanist is incorrect about her theory of invented ethics. The fact that a given secular humanist does not actually treat ethics, in practical situations, according to how she thinks the ethics are accounted for, is nothing to the point; it is merely an interesting (and sometimes very amusing!) practical problem with the proposal that ethics are only a human invention.

This type of explanation does have some very plausible arguments behind it; and its proponent can very self-consistently admit (before or after she herself tries to treat the ethical appeals as if they were really what they seemed to be) that she is only treating ethical questions as if they were really what they seemed to be--that she has to do this because it's the only way to get things accomplished.

She can even say, that although it may seem to you she is being self-consciously treacherous and deceitful to apply for justification to a notion she herself believes is merely invented (and thus purely arbitrary except with respect to the power of the groups who back the notions in question), in point of fact she is not being treacherous or deceitful: for those are themselves ethical judgments of her actions, which judgments (she says) are not actually ethical themselves but merely are actions you are taking to ensure society doesn't break down by her inefficient use of her knowledge of the actual underlying causes (for instance).

If you pointed out to her that in your opinion her actions in manipulating the illusion do threaten to subvert or undermine the power status quo, she would probably agree with you. But, so what? She wants something done, and so will play the game of ethical justification in any way she can, to get it done.

She might at first agree with you, that at least a working and stable society should not be subverted and undermined; but after thinking about the implications of the "should not" (once it becomes explicit) she would probably clarify herself: it is simply in her self-interest--for the moment--that the current stable society shall stay the way it is. When her self-interest changes so that in her estimation her gain for herself is greater by subverting or undermining the current stability, then given the opportunity and ability this is what she will (very rationally!) choose to do.

She might suggest that her own self-gratification is not the primary, or only, scale by which she rationally judges which actions to take; she may say that she could be working for her children's gratification, or for the gratification of (one of) her distinct social groups. But if you ask her why she would work to gratify her social group, then if she honestly and self-consistently sticks to her own theory, she will say it is to her advantage (even if merely for her own enjoyment) to gratify that social group. If you ask her why she would work for her children, then she would say because it satisfies her to work for her children. If you ask her whether she would do anything for the children if it did not satisfy her... well, I don't know what she would say, other than no. If she said yes, she would not be self-consistent with her own theory of ethical behavior, and would then be applying--really applying, not merely for show--to another explanation for ethics (perhaps the second one, which I will get to in a moment).

If you claimed that you cannot trust her, because of this standard she has of judging which actions to take, she would quite sensibly correct you: you can trust her to act in the way she perceives to be in her own best interest. Or if she has slipped by accident into thinking that a human-independent scale of behavior justification does exist, you can trust her to follow that illusion as long as she is under the illusion; whether you notice this slip and choose to take advantage of her or not, is your affair. She would of course prefer you didn't take advantage of her; and to protect herself and to ensure that social force is brought to bear against you if you try to take advantage of her, she will choose to put her defense in whatever terms of ethics the power-group she wishes to manipulate is currently using.

Interestingly, for her self-gratification to be maximized, it is to her advantage (whether she realizes it or not) for most people to remain confused (as she sees it) about the reality of what ethical behaviors actually are; because if everyone behaved as she did, then they would pay no attention to any appeals she makes in the language of ethics!

So in such a world: if it offended her for her child to be required by a school to participate in a pledge of allegiance that included "in God we trust", then she could tell them she was offended, and they would probably recognize it as a fact, but the child would still have to obey the rules and participate in some fashion, or suffer the consequences. If she threatened to sue them, in order to bring social force against them, she would have no grounds upon which to base her claim except the raw fact that she does not want her child to (effectively) learn to pray to Someone she doesn't think exists. There would be no laws about this to appeal to (in such a hypothetical world); there is no reason why a majority should make exceptions for an individual's self-gratification, unless the individual has the power to draft (and ensure enforcement of) the laws, in which case appealing to the law would be a waste of time anyway--it would be better to merely apply the effective power directly to the problem! (If this description sounds like any number of supposedly 'democratic' tyrants in our world's history, it is hardly by coincidence...)

Still, 'invented ethics' can (at least in theory, and even in practice in some ways) be a self-consistent claim. True, the proponent of the theory won't come out and explain exactly what she is doing when she appeals to fairness or rights, while she is making the appeal; but that is only because she knows nothing would get accomplished if she explained what she was really doing. The duplicity involved does not mean her theory is false.

Let me also remind you that this notion is not restricted merely to secular humanists and/or other atheists/agnostics. It can also be applied by people who believe God exists and is amoral. And there are other ways to accept this theory, too, as I will show later.

This seems the best time to mention (despite not having covered the second and third category of explanation yet!) that a fourth broad category of explanation could also be attempted: ethics are a set of invented non-rational behaviors. But this would be tantamount to proposing that humans in pre-history genetically or otherwise mechanically engineered ourselves to automatically knee-jerk react to environmental stimuli, and we have since forgotten that our ancestors did this to themselves. (Or aliens! Or some divine power...?!)

Invented non-rational behavior doesn’t work very well as a broad-base explanation for human ethical behavior, first because principally the behavior would actually be rationally invented ethics, even though the result is a left-over designed instinct (or habit) to which humans automatically react today, and so would really fit in the first category; and second because it presupposes a level of (what amounts to) brainwashing techno-ability that can only be aspired to by modern tyrants!--which seems implausible as a historical explanation.

If that sounds suspiciously like the underlying principle of many attempts at proposing the upcoming third category of explanation--that such attempts are inadvertently proposing the first category of explanation after all--I agree, it certainly does!

I’ll be covering this topic in some detail later, with a definite appreciation of this criticism. I will also later be discussing another special version of this first explanation.

But next I will discuss the second broad category of ethical explanations.

[Next up: ethics and discovered non-rational behaviors]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.

Popular posts from this blog

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief and reason

Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

Bayes Theorem And Probability of God: No Dice!

The Meaning of the Manger

If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?

The Origin of Life and the Fallacy of Composition

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"