Implications, As Promised

In my post from last week I suggested that there would be some implications that flow from the unethical foundations of all ethics.  So, even though they are not completely thought-through, here are the ones which strike me as fairly obvious:

  • All reasoning about ethics/morality is wrong – though not, I should say, in the sense in which orderlies stealing from old ladies in nursing homes is wrong, but in the sense of factual error.  At best, one could say that all ethical reasoning is partial.  This is, of course, because any conception of the Good will necessarily have one or more holes or blind-spots in its analysis which it cannot acknowledge since to do so would be to undermine itself.  As I pointed out before, any conception of the Good requires the suppression of certain beliefs, behaviours, or desires that are inimical to its successful realization.  However, if these beliefs (etc.) are not ‘bad’ apart from their utility/disutility to one or another conception of the Good and, more importantly, comprise the conception of and striving after the Good of the one who has them, then the suppression of same by some other ‘Good’ and its agents constitutes a harm for that person.  The suppressing ‘Good’, however, cannot acknowledge that it is doing actual harm, else it wouldn’t be Good (or even good) – and thus we arrive at notions of ‘restorative punishments’ and ‘merely perceived harms’ which, to my mind, are pretty obvious attempts at bootstrapping coherency and universality. [1]
  • Another consequence is that to a significant degree, might makes right.  For society to be possible among numerous individuals it is necessary that there be some commonality of expectations, understandings, etc.  In order to achieve this, some conception of the Good – it will probably be easiest with one already broadly agreed to, but that is a matter of practicality – will need to be privileged over all others, even if this means doing harm to those who may not share in this conception.  Once a conception of the Good is being enforced, however, it becomes extremely difficult to resist seeing as ‘Good’ for many reasons: practicality, it grounds one’s way of life, simple lack of imagination, fear of social disapproval, etc.  By way of illustration, consider the case of hereditary monarchies.  It is difficult to imagine how any large number of people (thousands, millions) would have originally assented to absolute power being wielded over their lives by a single person and all his descendants thereafter except through coercion, but we do know that it was eventually taken for granted by most that this was simply the natural state-of-affairs and was a Good thing.  Moreover, it isn’t clear that this should strike us as overly troubling either.  Beijing is trying to enforce the use of a single language and a dominant culture throughout China, which is no doubt harmful to cultural and linguistic conservatives throughout that country [2], but which is no different in kind from any number of similar programs enacted throughout Europe which gave us all those countries we know today. [3]  Of course, this is meant to deny neither the reality of moral disagreement nor that the exercise of might (whether social or physical) can and often does do harm [4], but is rather to say that we should acknowledge that enforcement and the regularity it provides does, over time, tend towards legitimacy.
  • We should probably drop any worries about ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘being in the right’ because these are only possible from within the framework of some conception of the Good.  There are several problems with this.  First, as mentioned above (1), it will actually make us blind to certain situations that require moral consideration but which our favoured idea of the Good won’t admit of.  Second, since any conception of the Good necessarily and categorically does harm to some number of people based on the ‘appropriateness’ of their beliefs, behaviours, desires, etc., then actions flowing from any such conception will be prone to causing harm in the ways characteristic to that idea, making it entirely likely that if we do harm when acting on our idea of the Good we shall ignore or rationalize away said harm.  Third, even if we can acknowledge an area of ethical concern, trying to stay too closely within the boundaries delineated by our theory will constrain our scope of action in ways that may not be useful and may even prevent us from ever getting around to being useful because we cannot make our ethical algorithm compute.

Endnotes:

[1] I am assuming here that we are considering universalist-type conceptions of the Good (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, Socialism/Marxism).  An obvious objection is that such criticism wouldn’t apply to conceptions of the Good that are more local in scope like, for example, Jewish rules regarding diet or ethnic-chauvinist moralities.  It is an interesting question but one which I must set aside for now although, as a pre-reflective sort of comment, I will note that most ‘local’ conceptions of the Good tend to be those held by less-powerful groups.

[2] Who, in an attempt to find allies to apply external political pressure against such policies, have formed a partnership of convenience with Western Progressives who have little patience for such linguistic and cultural conservatives within their own countries.  The irony is both palpable and delicious.

[3] Similar programs were successfully undertaken in places such as France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain (among others) and unsuccessfully in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia,  greater Spain (Spain, Portugal, the Basques), and the Soviet Union (among others).  Presently, the European project is attempting to forge a supra-nationality among the European nations – time will tell whether that will take (and perhaps, looking at the current European situation, not much time at that).

[4] Nor is it meant to imply that I am untroubled by the implementation of such policies in the Chinese case (or generally, for that matter).

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The Thing About Ethics…

… is that it is foundationally unethical.  Gone off my rocker, have I?  Not entirely, I should think.

Think of it this way.  Ethics/morality/’whatever you want to call it’ comes down to articulating some vision of the Good and then influencing or regulating the behaviours of some set of people – typically members of a social or cultural group – in order to facilitate or make possible the realization of that conception of the Good.  This, it should be noted, requires both encouragement and discouragement.  What this means is that whatever the Good is thought to be, its pursuit will necessitate harming some other people’s legitimate interests (that is, making them act contrary to their conception of the Good).

Some examples:

Say that the Good in Puritanistan is thought to be a near-monkish celibacy.  Now, it is pretty easy to imagine that most people would find this onerous, even if they agreed that such restraint is Good.  There would undoubtedly be, however, some individuals, perhaps those who are constitutionally hornier than average, who would still be required to stick to the conception of the Good – on pain of punishment, whether corporal or social (shaming, etc.) – even though they, by dint of their individual natures, would likely not choose to live the Puritanistanian lifestyle (and for the sake of argument let’s suspend judgements and suggest that there is nothing wrong with sexual longings in themselves).  They might be happier in Swingerovia, where free love is the Good.  Of course, even an as ‘do-as-you-please’ lifestyle as the Swingerovian will, in order to work effectively, necessitate the suppression of certain normal, wired-in human emotions. [1]  Specifically in this case, sexual jealousy: it is hard to freely love someone when his/her other lovers are conspiring to kill you.  Therefore, jealousy and its expression will need be heavily stigmatized in order for such a society to continue functioning as it does.  The very jealous might do better in a society with the expectation of greater sexual restraint (again, let’s suspend judgements and assume that there is nothing wrong with jealousy in itself).

Now, in neither case are the wired-in emotional dispositions of people problematic except insofar as they are disruptive of the conditions necessary for the realization of each society’s conception of the Good.  But to ensure that those conditions obtain some people [2] must act or be made to act (or punished for failing to act) in ways that are contrary to their individual natures, which is counted as a harm by those whose natures are inimical to the ‘Good’. [3]  Furthermore, this is true of all moral/ethical systems, to one extent or another.  Again, stepping back from our own valuations a bit, what is ‘bad’ about accurate or earned, outspoken self-regard – i.e. arrogance – except that it irritates us and our conception of the Good seems to involve never having anyone point out they are better than us (and Jesus was pretty much against it)?  Our morality/code of ethics demands that those who have accomplished great things nevertheless pretend that they did not or that it was somehow accidental or that their role in this accomplishment is of merely secondary importance.  Surely this does some amount of harm to the interests of those who have accomplished some great feat? [4]

We can now put our own ethical caps back on now.  It should now be obvious, though, why I believe that ethics are foundationally unethical.  There are some implications that fall out of this but I will look into them later.

Endnotes:

[1] I should say that I am not a fan of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), I find the ‘Integrated Model’ described on the same linked page far more plausible.

[2] Actually, all of the people, some of the time.

[3] For a little background on how I think about morality, see here.

[4] This is on my mind because of the London Olympics.

A FURTHER NOTE!!!:

This is a much condensed version of my original post because WordPress is evil and – even though I definitely hit ‘save’ – I apparently saved only the first line of this post, even though I had written much more.  I get a lot of guff from WordPress and, I swear, were it not free I’d be on a different platform.

Some Comparative Reflections on Sweden and France (Pt. 2 of… ?)

So, the attentive reader will have noted that in the last post, I mentioned having a cold.  I came down with it in Paris (though no doubt I caught the bug on the plane over).  This caused me some consternation since my right inner-ear is touchy when I fly, even at the best of times.  By this I mean, of course, that it becomes plugged and then, on the descent, hurts like someone is slowly pushing an ice-pick into my head.  This is bad enough, but this time I was looking at flying to Stockholm in a couple days’ time with ears that were plugged with fluid on account of the cold – something had to be done!

Naturally, this meant a trip to the pharmacy.  Now, French pharmacies are a little different from the ones that I am used to at home.  We do say that there are ‘over-the-counter drugs’ at home, but in France, one actually has to talk to the pharmacist to get them, as all the drugs are actually behind the counter (I wasn’t paying attention, but it seemed like only beauty products and bandages were in the area customers had access to).  Anyway, I found the whole experience very easy – I just explained (in my broken French) what my problem was and the fellow handed me some pills and that was that.  And, thank the empty heavens, the drugs even did a pretty good job of clearing out my passages, so the flight wasn’t that bad.

However, the problem persisted and I ran out while I was in Stockholm (I should have been more prepared, alas).  So I made a trip to a Swedish pharmacy.  Now, I don’t speak a single word of Swedish, but fortunately everyone in Sweden speaks perfect English (I’m not kidding, I didn’t have trouble communicating at all, unlike in Paris).  Anyway, I spoke to a pharmacist there about what I had been given to me (to good effect) by her French counterpart (the main ingredient was pseudoephedrine).  What she put into my hands, however, was something that is not what I was looking for and did my ear no favours for the return trip.  Now, there were, I should say, no problems with communication – she mused about the combination of ingredients in the French medication as a typical one – and I am certain that it was simply the case that she couldn’t give me what I was looking for without a prescription.

I say this based on two important bits of information besides the fact that she knew what I was looking for.  First, none of the drugs on the shelves that I could get at (Swedish pharmacies do keep some of the goodies up front) contained pseudoephedrine, though there were plenty of ‘natural remedies’ available.  Second, but more interestingly, my host in Stockholm had informed me about the availability of birth control methods in Sweden.

Apparently, my host informed me, there is but one brand of condom for sale in the whole country.  Further, some of the other over-the-counter methods of birth control available in my neck of the woods (spermicidal agents, specifically) require a prescription in Sweden.  This, of course, confounds my ordinary North American sensibilities.  What if that brand of condoms doesn’t work for one (e.g. allergies)?  What if I should wish to combine this less than totally reliable method with a backup (say, spermicide) in order to further decrease risk off pregnancy.  Shouldn’t one be able to go ahead and do so without some doctor hectoring him/her over his/her acceptable level of risk?  And, should I happen to need a drug that is safe in low doses (the French drugs did not kill me) and will make my life better now, should I not be able to get my hands on it without (doubtlessly) having to spend a few hours waiting to see a doctor?

Not in Sweden, it would seem.

Some Comparative Reflections on Sweden and France (Pt. 1 of…?)

So I have made it back from Europe in one piece, and happily without bringing my cold back with me.  I have even managed to mostly get back to local time pretty painlessly, so I am in high spirits this Sunday afternoon.  In any case, I had an outrageously good time while I was away, having the good fortune to be able to stay with friends, in both Paris and Stockholm, for all but three days of my trip.  I have been to Paris before (and other parts of France, and some of Europe beyond that), but I had never made it to Sweden before this trip, so I was pretty interested to see what I could learn about the place – especially because Sweden is held up as some left-wing version of Shangri-la.

We flew into Arlanda airport and took the train from there to Stockholm.  The airport is quite far north of the city itself, so our route in was mostly wild and pastoral vistas (both very welcome since, at this point, we’d been cooped up in downtown Paris which, while lovely, is not roomy and is distinctly lacking in greenery).  My first observation about Sweden was that, finally, Ikea made sense.  I can’t quite describe why, but when we were passing through/by the smaller suburbs of Stockholm, it just was unquestionably true – Sweden is like “Kontrii” by Ikea.  If you are shopping at Ikea, you are not just buying a particular style of goods, you’re buyingSwedish style.

Getting into Stockholm proper, a few things were immediately apparent.  First, it is clean.  There was no litter, very little in the way of discarded cigarette butts, and absolutely no dog crap.  These last two are totally unlike Paris, which always has surprised me – the French (and Parisians especially) are so proud of Paris that it makes little sense to me that they don’t deem it important to pick up after their pets or refrain from dropping their butts wherever they happen to be standing.  But then, there were far fewer Swedes smoking anyway, so maybe it’s not a Swedes vs. French thing, but a matter of how many smokers there are dropping butts.

Second, Sweden is white.  Extremely white.  I’m not sure I saw more than a hundred non-Swedish stock people while I was there (but I have been told that the immigrants mostly live in Stockholm’s suburbs anyway, so I suppose I wouldn’t have run into them in any case).  Paris is much more ethnically diverse than Stockholm and so I presume (given that immigrants tend to congregate in cities) France is on the whole much more mixed than Sweden.

Third, Stockholm is mostly new, which is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Paris is basically a museum piece – it has been decided that Paris is to retain its nineteenth-century character, so all its skyscrapers and tall buildings are at the outskirts of town (presumably, they are actually in the suburbs).  With the exception of the old-town in Stockholm (one of the city’s islands which has been settled for some thousand years and is home to the official residence of the Swedish monarch), however, the rest of the city is extremely recent.  By which I mean this – if it isn’t a church and it isn’t in the old town, it was probably built after the ’60s.  Unlike other cities in Europe with large modern sections (e.g. Berlin, London), this is not a legacy of the destruction wrought by the war (Sweden never got involved in the great European conflagrations) – it appears that the Swedes simply decided that theirs was to be a ‘modern’ city and tore down whatever was in the way of that project.  Which makes sense, I think, given their famously (infamously?) aggressive feminism.

But that is enough for today, since I have yet to get my daily dose of exercise.  I will have more observations up soon (because I was lazy and didn’t do any drafts for the blog while I was away, so it will have to be easy observations).  I will be more on topic soon though!