Ethics and the Third Person -- a return to secular ethical grounding?

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, Chapter 35, can be found here.]

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

To put things bluntly: so far, no good.

Each of the three general theories of ethics have been examined, and found wanting. Invented rational ethics; discovered non-rational ethics; discovered rational ethics--none of these turned out to be objectively ethical in the end.

Objective realities were certainly connected to each of the theories--although in the case of God the objective reality was posited rather than commonly agreed upon. (Notice that in my recent discussion of theistic ethics, I didn’t try to connect the proposition of God to my previously developed synthetic argument. There is a reason for that; but I will discuss it later.) To a sceptic, this could hardly be considered an advantage!--especially since the result was demonstrably no better than what a sceptic could do with the first two theories (specifically the first one, invented rational ethics). Which of course is precisely why many sceptics don’t even bother with the proposition, but stick with the ethical husks they can derive from evident realities: the choices of people; the reactions induced by environment (internal, external).

There is, however, a secular theory of ethics still left over!--one being turned to by secular theorists in increasing numbers, because it seems to offer a way out of the vicious dilemma of having an ethical base that is, itself, non-ethical in quality. To understand and appreciate the strength of this contention, we must first go back and re-consider: why did the other theories fail?

At the beginning of my discussion on ethics, I offered what I believe and find to be a commonly accepted notion of what ethics are, or would be (if they really existed), in principle. There may be polysyllabic variations, but for any practical purpose, I think this definition has to be accepted eventually.

That definition was this: ‘ethics’ is the logic of coherent interpersonal relationships.

The problem with the first two general theories, as I previously found, was that each of them in different ways denied or ignored interpersonal relationships as a fundamental base of ethics. Discovered non-rational ethics, aren’t based on persons at all, much less on coherent interpersonal relationships. Invented rational ethics may be (or appear to be) grounded irreducibly on the actions of persons, but the type I discussed begins with self-centered pragmatism; it only becomes interpersonal at a later stage (if at all!), and need not involve anything other than forms of competition and domination, suborning all matters, including interpersonal relationships (as far as they go) to the selves of the persons inventing the ethics. Yet again, positing (or even discovering) that the Independent Fact, the ground of all reality, is Itself a Person, does not of itself remove this problem: it only means you and I, the little tyrants, are ultimately trumped (even if we are all put together) by a Great Tyrant.

But, the secularist may fairly ask: may we not rationally invent a different kind of ethics? Indeed, may we not discover a different kind of rational ethics?

Given that persons exist, and given that persons as persons will be in personal relationships with each other, may we not observe that there are more and less coherent interrelationships of persons as persons? Observing these, we may then choose, of ourselves, whether we will facilitate these coherent interrelationships or deny or traduce them for our own selfish advantage. Those who choose to do the first thing, may then be accurately termed ‘moral’ people, behaving ‘ethically’. Those who choose to do the other things, may then be accurately termed ‘amoral’ or ‘immoral’ people, behaving ‘unethically’. Lines of demarcation, rationally discovered, can thereby be drawn and profitably debated with some hope of reaching agreed-upon resolutions (or cogently fought for if negotiations failed); and the basis behaviors for doing so would themselves be rational actions, engaged in by rational entities. And the icing on the cake, for many sceptics anyway, would be that we don’t need God for any of this!

[Footnote: Not that the sceptic need be denying God’s existence outright; the sceptic could be a positive agnostic (a negative agnostic would be opposing God’s existence outright, in practice, but should also be opposing other metaphysical positions such as atheism), or might be a cosmological dualist of various sorts, or might be a naturalistic theist, or might be a supernaturalitic deist (minimal or nominal), or possibly even some sort of polytheist. My working definition of ‘sceptic’ for this book has been ‘someone who is sceptical of what I believe to be true’, broadly understood to be ‘Christianity’: i.e., anyone who disagrees with my religious beliefs to a significant degree--though admittedly, I frequently have in mind people who are sceptical of the existence of a miraculously active supernaturalistic God. Most observant Jews, and I suppose all Muslims, would be ‘sceptics’ of my broad definition, but would be very far from considering this result to be “icing on the cake”!]

The proponents of this view would doubtless need to continue further and provide a practical outworking of this view; but my interest is in the principle first. How feasible, or even coherent, is this notion in principle?

It should be noted first that this proposition picks up special strengths from each of the first and second general theories, though strictly I think it could be categorized best as being a special variant of the first theory (thus explaining why I foreshadowed a special variant back in my first discussion of it.) It 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.

Secular humanists (to give an example of one group) who have gotten this far in ethical grounding, are quite pleased and happy with the notion--and 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.

[Next up: should this notion be opposed? And if so, why?]


Jason Pratt said…
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