Ethics and the Third Person--distinctive categories of explanation

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: In relation to a discussion I was having with Paul (last name currently unknown) on a topic begun by Chris Price (aka “Layman”) down in a post here, I am here appending in several parts some excerpts from an unpublished book of mine, originally composed late 99/early 2000, wherein I work out a progressive synthetic metaphysic.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. (Meanwhile, BK has begun his own discussion of the discussion, so to speak, here.)

Please keep in mind that I am discussing these things in light of something like 510 manuscript pages of previous analysis already. Which I may decide to inflict on the journal (in a hopefully somewhat more abbreviated form), at a later date, if I am sufficiently provoked. Be warned--be very awarned. {g}

(More seriously, I only mean that I am aware that a bunch of other topics really need to be discussed first. I haven't written this without considering them, but I can only be mentioning them sporadically. I am not, however, kidding about the 510 previous manuscript pages, which anyone familiar with my journal prolixity should at least find plausible as a claim. {s})

I am beginning in the first chapter of Section Four (chapter 30 of the book). The Section Title is “Ethics and the Third Person” (though I am a little doubtful I will reach a discussion of the ‘third person’ in this series of posts). The chapter title is “an introduction of the question of ethics”. In order to move things along, I am skipping past about 1-1/2 pages of catchup summary.

....... [beginning text excerpt]

I am willing to believe that you (my reader) 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 these relationships 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.

For example, 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, and strengths, 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.

[Next, the character and the implications of the first proposal...]

[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…
I never did register for comment tracking on this entry; so, while reading back over it...! {g}
Great explanation.Great posting.I would like to say thank for writer.

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