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

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, Chapter 33, can be found here.]

[This entry constitutes Chapter 34.]

In my previous chapter, I explained why my argument has now led me to consider questions of interpersonal relationships; what we call 'ethics'. Generally speaking, there are three branches of explanation for 'what happens' when we behave 'ethically'. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive--I myself think all three branches put together account for my own 'ethical' behaviors.

But the first two branches are necessarily exclusive of the third branch in this fashion: they essentially deny that truly ethical behavior is taking place. In other words, what those two general theories claim, is that what looks like 'ethical behavior' to us is not actually 'ethical' behavior.

In the first theory, we humans invent qualities in order to justify the actions of the individual. (The actions may be taken to satisfy instinctive wantings, of course.) These invention-behaviors are actively rational (not reactively instinctive); but the coloring of 'ethics' is merely a useful mask worn, or a game played, by the participants: because otherwise there would in fact be no effective justification for the individual to claim rights over the group.

In the second theory, the behaviors are merely the automatic reactions we humans, as humans, have to our environment, whether macroscale (the social level) or microscale (the genetic level). Like the first theory, a sort of mask is placed over the 'real' source of the impulses so that the individual has some power of justification within the social group.

Both theories, in essence, deny (so far as they go) that an interpersonal relationship is taking place.

For the second theory, the relationships have nothing to do with people as persons (merely as animals of a particular species or social group). For the first theory, the fact that other people happen to be producing the situation to be actively exploited or defended against by a person, is virtually a coincidence--in principle, the other persons (being exploited or defended against) might as well be fish or volcanoes.

I will emphasize again, as I did in the previous chapter, that this does not mean the theories are false (unpalatable though they may be). Nor shall I be arguing: "These are the typical explanations produced by atheists and philosophical naturalists; whom I have already refuted (I think); therefore, they are false." I don't think such an argument would strictly work; it isn't impossible that God (supernaturalistic or otherwise) could and would allow such behaviors to take place. Nor do I think the mere fact that no one (to my knowledge) who proposes such explanations actually applies them to their own selves consistently, counts against these theories being true.

I will say this, however: it seems to me that any proposed explanation of an effect which requires the explanation to be essentially ignored in order to accomplish anything worthwhile, is not likely to be capable of covering all the facts.

Here is what I mean. In a previous chapter, I discussed the fact that the centrifugal force does not really exist. It is an illusion, created by the centripetal force. For most people, this distinction is trivial: the centrifugal force can be described and used like a real force. Most children can be easily taught that if they whirl a pail of water on a string at a certain speed, the water will not fall out. It pools instead on one 'bottom' side of the pail. That is the 'centrifugal force'. The real force being applied, however, is the pulling of the string toward the whirling child, with the pail trying to pull away according to its momentum in a vector-direction at right angles to the pulling of the string. Engineers typically calculate their figures (in such situations) using this force instead, for it is the actual corrective force being applied to the inertial movement of the pail: the centripetal force.

But what if a teacher in a college class explained this to first-year engineering students, and then continued along this line: "Although the centripetal force is the real force creating the illusion of the centrifugal force, in order to accomplish anything useful we must ignore the real centripetal force and apply to the false centrifugal force instead. It isn't only that using calculations of the false centrifugal force takes us less time to do, than what we could accomplish using the centripetal force; it's that if we apply to the real centripetal force as justification for our mathematic conclusions, it cannot be self-consistently accepted as justification, and what we are trying to accomplish will fail."

If I was the student of such a teacher, the first thing that would occur to me is: "This sounds like total drivel!" My next thought would be a reasonable suspicion: "Perhaps the centrifugal force really exists, but this teacher wishes to deny its existence."

Now, the situation isn't quite that bad with regard to the first and second explanations of ethics--the explanations that say ethics aren't really ethical at bottom--because a person might 'know the truth' and use that knowledge to effectively get results. But the use of that knowledge to effectively get results still depends on flummoxing the other people involved; the ones who do treat ethics as being objectively ethical.

As long as I think that you are merely inventing your ethical behaviors (and that I am also merely inventing my own), you will find it impossible to convince me of anything on 'moral' grounds.

Similarly, if you expect me to accept that my feelings about justice are only the result of automatic reactions to my environment, then you will find me laughing at you when you ask me to accept that such-and-such should be done 'because people deserve to know the truth'. If our concepts of justice are only the result of genetically induced species bias, then it is only genetically induced species bias that prompts you to say 'people deserve' anything (including that you 'deserve' anything)!

Be that as it may: I repeat once more that such an observation on my part is no argument that such explanations are not true.

But considering the problems and limitations of the first two general classes of ethical theory, brings me more clearly to a consideration of the third general theory.

This theory, unlike the first two, proposes that ethics are, at bottom, objectively 'ethical'. According to this theory, when we behave 'ethically', then (at least some of the time) we are discerning, recognizing, and attempting to correspond to an aspect of objective reality that has the property of being 'ethical'. Ethics objectively exist (somehow!) to be discovered, and we discover them rationally by active reasoning. Ethics are discovered rational behavior, if this general class of theory is true.

A person who explains our (and his) ethical behaviors as being utterly ultimately produced by automatic reaction to non-rational causation, doesn't bother to say that cytosine and other genetic proteins are 'ethical'; and he doesn't bother saying this, because cytosine (as far as we can tell) is not rational and so does not intentively initiate actions. It merely reacts. The actual 'standard' of ethics under his theory is not itself 'ethical'.

On the other hand, the person who explains ethics as being rationally invented by humans, means that ethics are not intrinsically a part of fundamental reality--because humans haven't been around forever--and also means that if there are 4 billion humans, there are potentially 4 billion ethical standards. If those standards happen to fairly closely coincide with one another in practice, this is basically a fortuitous coincidence fostered by the common environment shared by groups of people. (There is a special and highly important humanistic variant of this, too, which I will be discussing a couple of chapters from now.)

The concept of murder, for instance, becomes a sliding average if the concept was only rationally invented: it means one thing now, it meant something a little different 100 years ago, it might have meant something rather different 1400 years ago in a different society; and if there happen to be unchanging characteristics to the definition of murder across these times/cultures, this is only a result of we rational animals not having changed our behaviors, tolerances or understandings during that slice of history.

Such ethics are purely subjective in reality, although in practice the mass weight of the floating average of opinion about what constitutes 'murder' gives a sort of quasi-objective standard for purposes of comparison. However, the floating average is not itself objectively ethical. Its shape is, in essence, a coincidence of history; it could have been something else. In such theories, 'Murder is wrong' is not in principle a statement like 'The sum of the squares of the two shortest sides of a right triangle, is equal to the square of the side opposite the right angle'. It is a statement more like 'Currently the English word for such a shape is "triangle".'

Now, it is an objective fact that the current word in English is "triangle"; and it is an objective fact that at this moment there is such-and-such an average of opinion in the United States as to what constitutes murder. But it is also an objective fact that our English word for "triangle" is merely a subjective convenience, purely dependent upon superinducing circumstances of more-or-less trivial character; and under this ethical theory, so is our average opinion (or average opinions, in regard to disparate social groups) about murder.

The objectively ethical standard, if such a thing exists, therefore must be something personal, and it must be something at the ground of reality so that it depends upon nothing else but itself.

And those two requirements combined, are simply another description of God.

Very well. For most theists, this is plain sailing; and they may consider my discussion up to this point to be a lot of verbiage to get to what they already accept to be true. In fact, I haven’t even quite “gotten to” this yet!--I have not yet argued that an objectively ethical standard, per se, must exist.

What I want my theistic brethren to understand, however, is why sceptics often have such a hard time with this. Specifically, I find that it is important to understand why the mere existence of God does not necessarily entail an objective ethical standard--just as sceptics of theistic ethics have often tried to explain.

And that will be the next chapter.

[Next up: the terminal problem with ethical theism]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Leslie said…
To what extent do you believe existential arguments are valid against these particular skeptical arguments for a non-theistic grounds for ethics? On one hand I agree that just not liking something does not make it either true or false. On the other hand, in this case we all have personal experiences of objective moral values and duties. This is why skeptics have such a difficult time following through with the consequences of their belief system. So when we come to this arguments and have that feeling that they just are wrong, could that not be an argument of sorts against those positions, if what exactly that means is hashed out correctly?
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks for the question, Leslie!

I think it's reasonable to consider our intimations of an objective ethical source to be at least inductively suggestive. But I don't think they're valid against arguments for something other than a theistic ethical ground; maybe on the same par with such arguments, and so as respectable as such arguments.

Of course, an inductive expectation that God (the "good"!) exists as the ground of ethics, carries as a proposition the corollary that the other two explanations cannot be exhaustive in themselves or in conjunction. The expectation would thus be topically against such explanations, insofar as those explanations are presented in exclusion of the proposition. I'm not sure I would consider that the same as being a valid argument against those positions being true even as exclusive explanations in themselves.

In this I'm sure I'm following C. S. Lewis, who although he made an inductive suggestion of theistic ethics (along with a critique of competing theories) the centerpiece of his less formal apologetic efforts (namely the broadcast and print material starting off Mere Christianity), relegated his argument from morality a far more limited place in his more detailed and formal metaphysical work (namely Miracles: A Preliminary Study, including the 1st edition which was published roughly contemporary with his "Broadcast Talks".)

Lewis was more careful in MaPS to note that the non-theistic ethicist can brazen it out without engaging in a necessary persistent self-refutation (unlike with the Argument from Reason), and that even if they never quite followed the precepts they espoused, that didn't mean their underlying position (properly accounted for) was necessarily false. At the end of his chapter on the AfM, Lewis was content to note that if his AfR showed God (of some kind) existed, then the AfM helped us learn something more about God. When push came to shove he didn't treat the AfM as being sufficient in itself to be an argument for theism vs. atheism (or "naturalism" as he called it, following the prevalent fashion back then.)

I don't find that Lewis, unfortunately, ever engaged in as much of a similar critique of theistic ethics as he did in critiquing the other two general branches of ethical theory. He came close a couple of times, and it's a pity he didn't push on along the lines I find him hinting at in those places, because he would have made his specifically Christian (not only theistic) apologetic much stronger had he done so. Too many other things to do, perhaps; no one can do everything.

But it means that as much as I love Lewis' work, I end up having to say about it what I end up having to say about most Christian apologetic along this line that I have personally run across: it isn't specifically Christian. It's only theistic. And not even necessarily supernatural theistic either.

I'll have more to say about this when I return a few chapters from now to where I left off my progressing argument at the end of Section Three. But to anticipate where I'll eventually go: trinitarian (or even binitarian) theism has massively huge and even unique advantages for valid ethical grounding compared to any other metaphysic for a philosophy or theology.

And I've already argued that at least binitarian theism is true. (Or should be considered true, to put it a little more accurately. {g})


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