Ethics and the Third Person -- the final problem and piece of the puzzle

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, starting Chapter 36, can be found here.]

[This entry concludes Chapter 36, "Discovered Rational Secular Ethics?"]

[I ended the previous portion by writing, "It should be noted... that this [special secular humanistic ethical] proposition... emphasizes personal responsibilities and choices, while at least ideally minimizing (or even avoiding?) the problems involved with self-centered pragmatism. It also emphasizes rational discovery by rational entities, just like the second theory, while avoiding (completely?) the problem of non-rationality of the source of ethics under the second theory. And it coheres with our intuitions regarding interpersonal relationships being the basis of ethics, in a way that monotheistic ethical grounding simply fails to do. [...] I think any accounting that doesn’t recognize and appreciate the serious strengths of this notion, will be fundamentally crippled when it comes time to consider whether the notion should be opposed."]

But, is this notion, of avowedly interpersonal human relationships, sufficient for objectively ethical grounding?

It may be noticed that this secular, humanistic theory is not in fact judged to be sufficient by any explicit proponent of pragmatic invented ethics and/or discovered non-rational ethics! But then again, is the mere observation of dissent among the secular ranks, something to be inextricably held against a particular theory among those ranks? I would instantly undercut any theistic theory of my own, on a precisely identical ground, if I attempted to appeal to such a mere complaint. For after all, there are religious disagreements as well, are there not?--and far more in number of disagreements, too! Not that any mere appeal to numbers would carry legitimate philosophical weight in this regard, but the point is that the principle for the complaint would be the same in either case. Moreover, an appeal to such a principle could only escape being applied to all disagreements on any topic, by either ignorance, incompetence, or (to put it bluntly) cheating.

Still, neither should the disagreements simply be ignored as if they don’t exist. Perhaps they exist because the proponents detect some viable problems with this special variant of the first general theory.

Indeed, I find, as I consider the issue, that as attractive as this special variant looks, it proceeds by ignoring some fundamental recognitions; especially insofar as the theory excludes reference to the ground of reality on which we depend for our existence.

If one is a naturalist, for instance, then the question can only be avoided for so long, as to whether our behaviors are not only and ultimately the amoral interactions of particles, elements, molecules, compounds, intercellular structures... how far up the chain of causation do we go before we can realistically state that a behavior is moral and not amoral?--not amoral like all those other numerous foundational behaviors which not only underwrite but (on any merely secular theory of ethics) actually comprise the ostensibly ‘moral’ behavior?

A theistic naturalist might have some escape from this, perhaps. Or perhaps not, if theistic naturalism falls foul of the fatal problem with the third general ethical theory! But in practice I notice that theistic naturalism (i.e. pantheism) usually either ends up appealing to flat contradiction (for example behaviors are both fundamentally moral and also fundamentally amoral), which the non-theistic naturalist could propose just as easily (or rather as worthlessly), or else ends up proposing an ultimate subjectivism of apparent ‘moral value’ anyway. There seems to be no way out for the naturalist by this route.

Nor again, can the matter be simply indefinitely postponed by a positive agnostic. (A negative agnostic would be trying to undercut all theories, on general principle, and so would be unable and even unwilling to positively offer a solution anyway.) A choice is being made to leave certain ontological proposals out of the account; but whatever reality is, it really is affecting us! More to the point, the moment an agnostic avers that all we need to do is consider human interpersonal behaviors specifically without reference to grounding realities, a claim of truth is being implicitly (and maybe explicitly) made: whatever it is that we are dependent on, is not contributing to our ‘ethical’ behaviors in any significant way. But a moment’s thought will show, that even aside from the numerous and grave implausibilities involved in denying that the ground of our behaviors is of no account in accounting for our behaviors, the agnostic will have had to have judged the underwriting ontological options already and found them to be of no regard in the matter (regardless of whatever option happens to be true.)

But if this could be done (and aside from immediate implausibilities at reaching such a conclusion, I will assume for purposes of argument that it could perhaps be done), the level of judgment involved would seem suspiciously deep--so deep that I would begin to wonder why the proponent was still an agnostic about the truth of any of those options.

In any case, I think a proponent of the second class of ethical theories, would join me in agreeing, that the proponent of this special theory of interpersonal human ethics can only be dodging the question of constituent dependency: what good (pun intended!) does it do, to either ignore that all our behaviors are ultimately amoral in constituency, or else to claim that that the actual ground of our behaviors isn’t relevant to the quality of our behaviors?

‘Admittedly then,’ this special proponent may reply, ‘we face the fact that our natural behaviors must at bottom be amoral (especially insofar as we who defend this theory are naturalists and/or atheists.) But that is precisely why we...!’
Why you what? Sheerly invent an ethical standard that you pretend to objectively appeal to?! The pragmatist can do that just as well!--but no one who understands what the pragmatist is doing will for a moment agree that the pragmatist’s sheer assertion of what should count as right and wrong can carry any actual ethical weight.

‘Admittedly that is also true,’ the interpersonal secular ethicist may again reply. ‘However, the fault with the more general first-theory proponent is that there is a discontinuity between his procedure, and what we agree to make the most sense as a definition of ethics: the logic of interpersonal relationships. As you yourself agree, the ethical pragmatist is only incidentally involved with inter-personal relationships.

‘But we are building this notion in from the first! And what we are building from, is not some sheer invention or posit of our own! Other people do exist; there is no real dispute between opponents about their existence (in Western societies anyway). Unlike the existence of God, not-incidentally! If ethics is to be accepted and applied as the logic of interpersonal relationships, then very well: we start with people and their interrelationships--people whom we are willing to accept exist. If their interrelationships are valid in a mutually supporting way, then the behaviors are moral; if not, then if by accident the behaviors are amoral, and if the invalidity is on purpose the behaviors are immoral. Where is the problem in this?!’

The first and possibly chiefest problem I can think of, is a problem that some of my readers may have been long complaining about since the start of this section of chapters on ethics:

Why exactly should we accept ]that definition of ethics!?

‘But...! Because...! Well, you did!’

True, and I was glad to perceive that this would be widely accepted as being a proper definition; but I have ulterior reasons for doing so, too--reasons I haven’t yet mentioned, and which will become more evident soon. Meanwhile, your reasons for promoting that definition are... what?

‘Well, it’s just common sense!’

Not that I tend to disagree with this; I mean, I tend to agree that this position is (strictly speaking) common sense. But by itself, this doesn’t really help the situation. ‘Common sense’ isn’t always correct!--and not everyone agrees with ‘common sense’. Certainly no atheist could consistently make a root appeal on this ground, for atheism has not been regarded as ‘common sense’, but rather some kind of theism, by the vastly overwhelming majority of humanity past and present! Or again, to give an example an atheist may better prefer, most of humanity including its brightest scholars considered geocentrism to be common sense for most of human history. But they happened to be wrong.

I don’t mean to disparage common sense; and I can admit that there is a tantalizing inducement to specially accept it, in this special case: for after all, an appeal to ‘common sense’ must be closely related to exactly the ethical ground this proponent wishes to promote. What else is ‘common sense’, if not an interpersonal agreement?!--and one with some wide scope as well!

Even so, if the ground is the sheer assertion of a group of people, no matter how large, even if the group is a total of the population (which in this case it isn’t, by the way), the ground is still only a sheer assertion. Is there a ground for doing so beyond the sheerly asserted will-to-agree of a group?

If not (and by the terms of the theory there couldn’t possibly be such grounds), then what happens when another group, even if that group is only one in number of members, intends to will-to-agree another idea about what counts as morality?

It is still only the clan (in this case the intellectual clan perhaps) writ large; still only a might makes right philosophy. The only advantage is that this sheerly invented ethic would have the strength of group cooperation over-against a competitor. That may seem, and even be, reassuring in some ways; but it isn’t a necessity of reality.

To which the second theorist (along with the third) may also add, completely aside from the whole question of whether it pays in the end to disregard (one way or another) the ontological ground that is underwriting our existence and behaviors: this first group of ethical theorists, whether the self-centered pragmatists or the group who is ‘For The Greater Good’ (in the sense of numerically ‘greater’), had better more closely attend to the tacit claims they are making about themselves in trying to make this attempt at a root appeal. For, when they (the first theorists) make this appeal, it quite completely relies on their complicit recognition that they (and we as other humans) somehow transcend our environment, and not only in some convenient illusion. But this is an ontological claim in itself!--and yet the first theorists would have us ignore or discount ontology bases in our accounting of ethical grounding! After a while, this can only begin to look as though the point to ignoring ontology is so the first theorists can set themselves up, to be treated as the ontological ground themselves by hidden default. This begins to look diabolic!--it isn’t only unrealistic, it ends up being anti-realistic!

And so the deadlock continues. Or rather, the deadlock continues if what we attempt to do is start from the question of ethics. Which is what I have done in this section so far, and which is why I have done so.

But, I was doing something else, and had arrived at certain conclusions already, before I began this section of chapters. Now it is time to go back to where I arrived at the end of Section Three (the previous section), and continue with the progressive synthetic argument from there--but now with a clearer eye toward the issues at stake when the time has arrived (as it had at the end of the previous section) to begin discussing relationships between persons.

[Next up: returning to the God of Justice]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.

Incidentally, if anyone happened to check the journal yesterday and you don't remember seeing this post; that's because I intended to post it yesterday but never got around to it.

But I wanted the climactic entry to be posted on Monday, for Valentine's Day, for reasons I hope will become apparent. {g} So I backdated this post Monday morning.


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