Ethics and the Third Person -- Ethics and Discovered Non-rational Behavior

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, Chapter 32, can be found here.]

[This entry constitutes Chapter 33.]

In the second class of explanation, ethical behaviors are proposed to be irrational responses on our part to stimuli from our environment.

We may assign mistaken explanations to these behaviors later; or we may properly explain them later as irrational behaviors (assuming this proposal is correct) and discover as many links of cause and effect as we can. But the behaviors themselves are automatic reactions and counterreactions between our condition and the condition of the environment.

This does not mean they are unhelpful--on the contrary, the existence of these behaviors is usually explained precisely by their usefulness. Proponents of biological evolution thereby tend to explain at least some of what we call 'ethical' behaviors as results of evolutionary development. Proponents of philosophical evolutionism, on the other hand, tend to explain these behaviors entirely as a result of evolutionary development.

Let me clarify that last point: I happen to think that gradualistic biological evolution is a pretty good scientific theory which, although it still has some serious problems, has been refined to the point where it explains at least some natural processes rather effectively (especially so far as natural selection goes). To that extent, I am willing to agree that some of the behaviors linked to ethics are produced by effects that are results of evolutionary development.

But I also think there are elements of ethical behaviors--indeed, the only parts that can accurately be called 'ethical', as I hope to show shortly--which are not accounted for by the reactions and counterreactions of non-sentient natural process. The results of the reactions and counterreactions are data upon which I think we are called to actively judge, and not the only data, either; although in a pinch these instincts can also serve as a basic guideline when we have nothing else to go on. (Plus the instincts themselves often serve well for our survival and for other results we might otherwise rationally agree with.)

For instance, everyone of any philosophical stripe agrees that we humans, as individuals, usually have a very useful instinct that compels us to jump away from sudden loud noises; and virtually no one will call such a behavior a rationally conscious choice (although by ignorance or miseducation or forgetfulness they may call it an action rather than a reaction). Also, almost everyone will admit that some behaviors are rationally conscious choices and not instinct, although they may disagree about how those behaviors arose--and, in the case of the few people who disavow any behavior but raw instinct, their own ability to distinguish the two states (even to disavow the second state) argues that they must have some standard of measurement by which they are conceiving (or at least transliterating, for if they have nothing but instincts they themselves cannot be rationally conceiving) the concept of 'rational action'.

At any rate, I can be a theist and propose the existence of an objectively ethical reality that we perceive and relate to, while at the same time allowing for the existence of some related behaviors (functioning like shadows or useful substitutes for the actual ethicality) that have grown (or have 'been grown'!) within us through the process of biological evolutionary development.

But a philosophical evolutionismist (who of course also accepts a biological evolutionary theory, usually gradualism) is committed, as a philosophical evolutionismist (and not as, say, a creationistic theist) to the proposal that biological evolutionary theory completely accounts (at least in principle, whether or not the full process has been uncovered) for what we call our ethical behaviors. [See first comment below for a footnote here.] The instincts encoded in our genes by mega-millennia of mutation and natural selection, produce (under this proposal) every behavior we call 'ethical'. We may (easily) believe the behaviors to be something other than our unreflective response to environmental stimulus; or we may upon later reflection understand what the reality of our ethical perceptions 'really' are--either way, our experience of 'perceiving ethical principles in personal relationships' is, like the first class of explanation, a sort of gloss, a perception for convenience of use and expression, over what is really happening instead.

A well-known philosophical evolutionismist can thus explain to his readers that his love for his brother, or his feeling that he should love his brother, is actually and only a psychological impulse implanted into him by the replication of a very successful genetic code, to which he efficiently and automatically responds.

The strength of this class of proposal, is that it depends on events which almost everyone agrees are 'rawly objective', so to speak: brute existent facts, physical facts in this case, entirely capable (at least in principle) of either being quantified or at least being followed in quantifiable terms. The 'cause' of ethics is, under this theory, objectively discoverable, beyond the special kind of ‘objective reality’ which obtains in the case of intentional invention: the cause is something real beyond our selves (whatever our selves may be) and our willful self-assertions. Indeed, the cause of ethical behaviors, for this class of explanations, is the same as the cause of our selves at all!

The weakness for this class of explanation, however, is the same as the one underlying the theories of merely 'invented' ethics: what has been objectively discovered, under this theory, is not in fact 'ethical' at all.

The theory carries a further weakness as well; one not shared by the 'merely invented ethics' theory: the behaviors we describe as 'ethical' turn out not to be rational.

In the 'invented ethics' explanation, the behaviors (or some of them) are recognized (or at least acknowledged) to be actions: rational, conscious, intentive. But the only actions related to this second class of explanation of ethics, if any, are the (presumably!) rational explanations themselves showing that ethical behavior is at best irrational!--and at bottom, non-rational.

This might not seem like a very important weakness; until (once again) a self-reflexive system check is run on the behaviors the proponent himself is advocating. The well-known popularizer I mentioned earlier may accept and even stridently propose that ethical behaviors arise purely as a result of impulses (themselves non-rational) produced by aggregated genetic reactions. This same fellow, however, will turn around a few pages later and castigate the abuse of, say, Australian aborigines by settlers; or he will loudly declare that people deserve to know the truth, and ethically denounce groups who (he says) promote ignorance among the people.

But if his theory about the actual source of ethical behavior is true, then these remarks from him are almost comically silly: the equivalent of passing genetic gas! He exhibited them, not because people really deserve to know the truth, but because his genetic structure was wired in such a way as to produce the effect.

The same goes for any other explanation that ethical behaviors are ultimately the result of merely automatic response. Cultural pressures, for instance, are sometimes brought into play as catch-all explanations for 'ethical' behaviors. But the behaviors are still rendered ultimately non-ethical by such explanations; and thus their justification force is rendered null and void.

Here are the two examples from the previous chapter, redrafted:

'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 to redistributing the current load, because under the current load about 60% of the tax income is provided by 1% of the American citizens.' -- 'You're only saying that because, as a member of the 1% group, you have been sufficiently psychologically reactive to the cumulative social pressure inherent in protecting the status of that group.'

'If we as Americans take seriously, as a principle, the idea that the American people should be free to express their religious beliefs, 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 that because you are a mother perceiving a threat of some sort to your child, and you have been wired genetically to reactively respond in a manner which you perceive as resulting in "protecting" your child.'

These explanations might be quite true, concerning particular cases of fact. I am even willing to grant that such explanations do cover some of the facts of my own behavior (for instance).

But when they are proposed to cover all the existence of what we call 'ethical behaviors', then the quality of what we call 'ethics' has been explained away to something that is not really 'ethical'. After this, there can be no (self-consistent) return to any kind of truly ethical justification. A mere physical fact is, in itself, no rational justification for doing something; except maybe in a purely self-centered way.

'That man is going to die.'
Yes, you're right. So what?
'If you don't help him, I will kill you.'

The man's condition in itself has no rational weight to my decision; the threat to my own well-being is what I end up responding to, either by action or reaction. (In this example, whether the response should be considered the pragmatism of an invented ethical system, or a mere reaction to environmental stimulus, is not evident. It could be either one. The point is that to the extent reasoning is involved in the responsive result, the coherency of a interpersonal relationship is not the rational aim.)

Such theories of 'ethics' thus end by denying, at bottom, actual interpersonal relationships; either by denying the relationships are personal (merely non-rationally physical instead), or by denying the 'inter-' part of 'interpersonal' (it's all about me instead).

Once again: none of this means that these two theories are false. No one, even among their own proponents, consistently applies them (especially to themselves), perhaps; but this doesn't mean they are false--only that it is easy to be ignorant of the problems, or easier not to think about them. The theories are internally self-consistent as far as they go.

Can the same be said about the third class of explanations for ethics? And if the same can be said about its internal self-consistency, can the same also perhaps be said about this third class denying, at bottom, that the behaviors are intrinsically ‘ethical’ after all?!

I will consider those questions in the next chapter--with some answers that not all proponents of the third class are going to agree with!

[Next up: ethics and rationally discovered behavior]


Jason Pratt said…

A philosophical evolutionismist can also propose that 'ethics' can [u]also[/u] be entirely invented systems, as in my first classification, so long as the original underlying basis is the process of non-rational natural selection of non-rationally random mutation. The evolutionary process must be considered necessary for ‘ethical behaviors’, whereas the rationally invented systems must be accidental (in the philosophical sense of not having to exist.)

While the two explanations are mutually exclusive if pressed as ultimate explanations for ethical behavior, much moreso as ethical grounding, as I will demonstrate soon, it is not impossible to accept both explanations so long as each explanation covers [u]some[/u] behavior. In my experience, philosophical evolutionismists tend to accept, for practical purposes, [u]all three[/u] categories of ethical behavior--just the same way I do; the difference being that they ignore or attempt to refute the third category when its metaphysical implications impinge on their philosophy. (I have also met correspondents who, virtually within the same letter, attributed ethics entirely to mere invention [u]and[/u] entirely to mere instinct! I think this confusion is not uncommon.)

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