Friday, January 18, 2013

Ethics in a nutshell

[Note: I am no longer happy with this, and intend to post a revised version soon. April 4]

Ethics and morality are important topics, but much ethical discussion and debate is unenlightening and unproductive.

I have serious reservations about philosophical ethics. Whilst a knowledge of some of the rudiments of ethical theory may be useful for articulating issues and problems, there is no clear way of solving problems or deciding between alternative approaches. The academic study of ethics soon becomes (in my experience) an area of rapidly diminishing returns.

Different people have very different ideas about the scope and nature of ethics, often talking at cross purposes or seeking to promote a cherished agenda by any means, including personal abuse.*

Rather than elaborating ambitious theories or contributing to the revival of Aristotelian or other classical approaches, I am drawn simply to look at how adjectives like 'ethical' and 'moral', auxiliaries like 'should' and nouns like 'obligation' or 'duty' are actually used in ordinary day-to-day contexts, and the implicit social rules with which such expressions are associated.

Every society, every social group incorporates implicit rules of behavior. These rules (some relating to etiquette or manners, others to morality) can be studied and described like any other aspect of social life.

Prescriptive (as distinct from descriptive) approaches involve the individual actually making or accepting or rejecting moral judgements or using or applying moral language or concepts.

Deontic logic traditionally divides behaviors into three broad classes: obligatory, impermissible and optional. It's a complex branch of logic, but the real complications and challenges of moral thinking are not so much logical as contextual. Because, obviously, the general situation and the specific position(s) of the individual(s) involved need to be taken into account.

Times have changed since F.H. Bradley wrote his famous essay, 'My station and its duties' [included in his Ethical Studies (1876)], but the basic principle of the contextuality of ethics still applies. A person's duties or obligations derive in large part from (or at least cannot be assessed without taking into account) his or her positions in complex societal, professional and familial structures.

Kant talked about a categorical imperative, but I don't think we can get beyond hypothetical imperatives. In other words, if you (in such and such a situation) want such and such an outcome, do this or that. With respect to social relations, this way of thinking is never straightforward or foolproof, and requires judgement and insight to be applied successfully.

The kind of (implicit) rule-based approach to ethical thinking and manners which I am advocating is consistent with a very modest view of rights. If you break society's implicit rules whenever it suits you, you forfeit your right to the benefits and protections those rules might potentially provide.

The key question in ethics is a first-person question: what should I do (or refrain from doing)? I say this is the key question in ethics, but such a question (and this is reflected in the ambiguity of the word 'should') transcends ethics or morality.

Ethical or moral questions often merge into questions of etiquette, aesthetics and prudence as well as other areas or dimensions of life. There are no clearcut divisions between ethical and other considerations, in other words, and a certain type of (marginally unacceptable) behavior may be condemned by some as immoral, while others might prefer to call it ugly, unwise or just bad form. Others may see it in a positive light.

Even very serious moral transgressions (like the indiscriminate killing of civilians) are sometimes seen by people in the grip of certain ideologies or belief-systems as praiseworthy.

Most of us, of course, will condemn such ideologies as noxious and depraved. I certainly do. It is not really a problem that we can't prove our view correct and its converse incorrect in some objective, theoretical sense (though many think it is). Ethics is just not like that.

Quite simply, there is no absolute or objective ethical authority, and nor is there any objective method of determining 'moral truths'.

* Here is a summary of a recent controversy involving some very silly and intemperate assertions on the part of one of the protagonists.