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.


[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).

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.


[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.


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.