Class outline: Objective, universal ethics are unfounded and inapplicable

This is an outline of the paper I’m trying to write for my ethical theory class. Thoughtful feedback is appreciated.

1. Utilitarian and Kantian (aka Vulcan) ethics agree that ethics should take the form of objectively-founded, universally-applicable rules. This is presumably because their practitioners want to guarantee consensus: if we can show that such-and-such ethical rule is true (in the way that e.g. the sentence “The Earth is farther from the Sun than Venus is” is true) and we can show that it applies to all possible situations, then we can guarantee consensus (at least among everyone who’s rational and conversing in good faith) on what is ethically correct in every situation.

Obey reason.

Obey reason.

2. I claim that there is no non-circular way to found an ethical rule in objective reality, because in order to figure out which ethical system is better (truer, whatever), you need to already have some concept of what counts as “better,” (i.e. you need to already have an ethical norm). The only alternative to grounding your ethics on this kind of circular*-reasoning is to just postulate your basic ethical principle, and then start reasoning from there (e.g. “I care about fairness, and in this case that that means I care about…”). It seems to me that what’s going on in Utilitarian and Vulcan ethics is that rules which are actually postulated (i.e. the greatest happiness principle and the categorical imperative**) are presented as though they were objectively-founded. Again, I think this is probably motivated by the compulsion to guarantee ethical consensus.

3. I claim that universally-applicable rules are impossible in principle because of epistemic limits on language’s descriptive ability. If you want to write rules for others to follow in all situations, you need to be able to describe those situations. If I want to command, “You walk across the room,” I have to be able to describe what I mean by “you,” “walk,” “across,” and “room” precisely enough to prevent misinterpretation. In order to articulate a rule which applies to all people in all situations, I need to be able to describe all situations.*** That this is an impossible task seems obvious, and is supported by the example of Kurt Godel’s second incompleteness theorem. This theorem shows that any language (e.g. math, formal logic, English, etc.) which is sufficiently powerful (i.e. capable of complex description) to be interesting will, necessarily, be either incomplete (i.e. there will be statements in the language which cannot be determined to be true or false) or self-contradictory. Applied to our consideration of universally-applicable ethics, Godel’s theorem implies that we cannot have an ethical system which both tells us what to do in every situation and doesn’t contradict itself.

Kurt Godel: mathematical mastermind and skunk-hair enthusiast.

Kurt Godel: mathematical mastermind and skunk-hair enthusiast.

3. I claim that instead of pursuing rules that are objective and universally-applicable, we can achieve a satisfactory (not perfect–that’s impossible) ethical consensus through ethical guidelines which are subjectively-based (i.e. “I declare that such-and-such is good”) and situationally-applicable. To support this claim, I do not need to explain and defend some separate ethical system; all I need to do is establish that objectively-founded, universally-applicable ethical rules are not the only game in town. I do this by showing how an instance of subjectively-based, situationally-applicable ethical guidelines can achieve satisfactory consensus in a situation of sexual ethics (i.e. the ethical question “What position should we use tonight, baby?”)

mormon positions

3. I consider the objection that I am advocating ethical relativism, i.e. the claim that all ethical claims are equally valid, or, in other words, the denial of ethics. I reply that this objection misunderstands my claim: the objection only makes sense if we assume that objectively-founded, universally-applicable ethics are the only alternative to ethical relativism, which is precisely what I am denying.

moral relativism

4. In conclusion, I briefly discuss some ethical traditions which seem to me to avoid the problems of circular-foundations and inadequate universally-applicable rules by offering subjectively-founded, situationally-applicable ethical guidelines. (Again, I do not think that defending any or all of these traditions is essential to defending the claims I make in this paper.) First, I consider existentialism, and Nietzsche’s characterization of slave morality (which is framed in terms of good vs. evil, and approaches moral questions in terms of obedience to some authority) and master morality (which is framed in terms of good vs. bad, and approaches moral questions in terms of creative art). Second, I consider virtue ethics, which as articulated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics explicitly rejects objectively-founded, universally-applicable rules (see his criticism of Plato’s Idea-based morality, in Book I). Third, I consider real-world instances of negotiation, including mediation and democracy, and I suggest that these situations bear out Kwame Anthony Appiah’s claim that we do not need to agree on principles in order to agree on practices. As a final thought, I suggest that it would be useful, when we’re evaluating ethical theories, to ask not only “Is it true? What evidence is there for believing it?” but also “Cui bono? How does acceptance of this theory impact power relations?” It seems to me quite plausible to suggest that there is a connection between utilitarianism and Kantianism’s objectively-founded, universally-applicable rules and centralization of power in the same way that there is a connection between contemporary property law and the contemporary upper-class.

*In philosophy-speak, “circular” has important technical denotation, but basically functions as a euphemism for “bullshit.”
**In fairness to Kant, he does a lot of legwork in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals to try to derive actual moral obligations from the concept of moral obligations. In this sense, the categorical imperative is not postulated but is rather derived from (what Kant takes to be) the basic concept of obligation. The very definition of the categorical (as opposed to hypothetical) imperative, after all, is an imperative which is always and everywhere binding, regardless of one’s particular circumstances. However, this just pushes the postulation back one step: even if Kant shows that the categorical imperative is logically implied by the concept of obligation (which he doesn’t–at least, not without a whole bunch of caveats), we could still ask, “But should I obey obligations?” Kant might reply that, by definition, an obligation should be obeyed–but this would be sophistry. Anyone can define words any way they want, but that tells us nothing about whether those words have any referents. His only non-bullshit recourse, therefore, would be to postulate that we ought to obey obligations–which amounts to the same thing as just postulating the categorical imperative.
***This has been one of my big criticisms of Kant. As the Adrian Monk of ethical theory, part of his approach is to insist on keeping all references to real-world situations out of his ethics, since this would contaminate it with “heteronomy.” But this creates a problem: if my ethical rule can’t refer to the real world, then how can I figure out which features of a real-world situation are ethically relevant? The only way to have an ethical theory which has no reference to the real world is to have an ethical theory which has no application to the real world.

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One comment

  1. > I claim that there is no non-circular way to found an ethical rule in objective reality, because in order to figure out which ethical system is better (truer, whatever), you need to already have some concept of what counts as “better,” (i.e. you need to already have an ethical norm).

    There is a “feature” of objective reality that can be (or rather IS) the foundation for comparision – freedom. 1) freedom is not an invention of people. 2) freedom is the only possible basis for universal consensus. 3) without freedom there is no ethics. The only problem is freedom is paradoxical enough to escape rational understanding. This is the real problem of ethics. On the other hand objective reality is similarly paradoxical.

    > I claim that universally-applicable rules are impossible in principle because of epistemic limits on language’s descriptive ability.

    Right, the way to truth is endless and moral rules will always be limited in scope, but that does not mean we can’t have them and use them. But how to solve the problem of ethics and find the rules? Kant could not figure out the solution but it’s really simple (at least in theory). Just like a single mind can’t find a way around solipsism but humanity as a whole CAN by consensus (scientific in this case), so a single mind can’t find a moral law but humanity as a whole CAN by consensus. Truth is consensus.

    > I claim that instead of pursuing rules that are objective and universally-applicable, we can achieve a satisfactory (not perfect–that’s impossible) ethical consensus through ethical guidelines which are subjectively-based ……. we do not need to agree on principles in order to agree on practices.

    No, consensus is impossible without a universal common ground. Freedom is such a ground and therefore objective ethics is based on freedom as the supreme value and the (social) contract as the practical way to it. If that makes sense, this ethical system is described in the book “Cult of Freedom & Ethics of Public Sphere” and a part of the book is available for free at http://ethical-liberty.com Thanks

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