Every so often I’ll write a blog post that deals with issues on the outskirts of ethics, without actually delving too deeply into them. Too often people make assertions about the way life should be lived without attempting to postulate any particular theory over how to be nice to one another. This is especially pertinent to contemporary atheistic philosophers, as without gods or God, meaning and ethics must be sought out, and unfortunately are frequently omitted from any dialectic by these scientifically-minded individuals. This of course has lead many religiously-inclined zealots to decry that it can only be through religious adherence that morality can exist.

So, first and foremost, let’s debunk religious ethics.

Morality as a dictatorship is a flawed system. The reasoning behind any moral belief then becomes “Because I said so”, and this bullying practice does not hold up anywhere else within our human realm. Is something right just because the law says it is? Of course not; laws are man-made constructs: made by biased individuals, frequently with their own agenda. To submit to “the rules” simply because they are “the rules” without any critical reflection is slavery, with all the negative implications that that entails.

But of course, God is Good. Like, really. They’re supposed to be synonyms, almost. This makes the rules of God infallible. Critical reflection is unnecessary because God is by definition Good. However, in order for God to actually be Good, we would need a separate concept of Goodness with which to describe God. God is not Good, per se; God falls under our own, separate concept of Goodness. Think of it like this: when bad things happen to good people, the excuse is that God works in mysterious ways. There may be the underlying belief that God is still probably Good, but we almost inherently understand that bad things happening to good people cannot fall under the umbrella of Goodness, and so we avoid the parallel. Therefore, the separation between Good and God, and the unworthiness of blind obedience without critical reflection leads us to look outside of religion for a moral framework.

Luckily, people have understood this for millennia, and so we have plenty of examples of secular, rationalized versions of morality for people to fall back on. Typically, there are three categories that ethical systems fall under: Absolute ethics, Consequentialist Ethics, and Relative ethics.

Absolute Ethics: This belief claims that actions have inherent value, and therefore that value must be maintained at all cost. Lying is always wrong, murder is always wrong, rape is always wrong, etc. Absolute ethics paints the world in black and white. This would consequently lead to emotionless, detached decisions that fly in the face of every day human experience. If a minor ethical misdemeanour could prevent a major ethical disaster, is it still wrong to perform that action? A lie to stop a murder? Is anyone stoic enough to suffer through the agony of knowing they could have prevented whatever theoretical catastrophe the most dastardly armchair ethicist could dream up? If an ethical transgression can be overlooked when it comes to evading global, thermonuclear war, why should it hold water when it comes to lying to your spouse about an affair? Or to your child about the existence of Santa Claus?

The other problem is, who decides what has value? With religion it was easy, as God is allegedly infallible, but when it comes to man-made morality, what must be unambiguously Right becomes ambiguously human.

Aristotle had his Virtue ethics. In order to be ethical within this system, one has to exhibit: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; magnanimity; temperance. Forgetting the black and white mentality behind Absolutist moralities, we must here ask the question: what the hell do any of these even mean? How does one exude “magnificence”? Is the difference between “courage” and “rashness” based solely on the success of the endeavour, where a great number of outside factors could influence whether or not your actions are considered moral in the end? In an absolutist world, one cannot allow subjectivity to invade the premises, or the entire theory is shot, and in this case, both the creator of the values, and the interpreter of their implementation, would have their own personal and cultural biases which would influence the ethical nature of the action.

To avoid subjectivity, Immanuel Kant used logic as a means to create his own version of absolute ethics, which he dubbed, The Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative suggests that morality can only exist only when it is, without contradiction, able to become a universal maxim. For example, if lying was the norm, there could be no truth, and without truth, there can be no lying; therefore, lying is wrong. Unfortunately for Kant, I believe that his theory only works for certain actions, and not others. Let’s look at Aristotle’s Vice of cowardice. If cowardice was the norm, there could be no conflict, and without conflict, there can be no cowardice. Yes, it seemingly “proves” that cowardice cannot exist as a universal maxim, but its universal paradox ends up sounding morally superior to our own, and seems to suggest cowardice as the Virtue over courage.

The problem with rationality, especially in regards to ethics, is that the person using it often starts off with a biased premise, and then uses logic to “prove” their assertions. I believe another could use the Categorical Imperative quite successfully to reject cowardice, and it would only depend on the biases of the listener as to whom they would agree with.

Kant’s second section of the Categorical Imperative (Treat people only as an ends, never as a means to an end) is too ambiguous in its definition of what Ends entails. To add some levity while maintaining an accurate criticism, the villain Zasz from the Batman franchise murders people because he believes he is setting them free from the bonds of life. They are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. The subjectivity of the definition of “ends” disqualifies this one as well.

Of course, why are we trying to justify with reason something that could lead to nuclear winter? Even if Kant’s Categorical Imperative was beyond reproach, would it consider allowing epic catastrophes rational? Kant, bless him, would say yes, but Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment flawlessly thought out his own logic before his famous deed, but it was living with the emotional consequences after the fact that drove him to repent.

Consequentialist Ethics: Consequentialist ethics suggests that it is not the action that has any value, but what that action leads to: its consequences, hence the name. No longer bound by the rigidity of Absolutism, we can now lie to stop a nuclear war. The ethical system that most exemplifies Consequentialist ethics is Utilitarianism. Founded by Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism posits that an act is morally Good if it maximizes the happiness for the most amount of people. Generic murder is bad because the murderer typically is remorseful, there’s the grieving family, society at large mourns a loss of its citizen, and the dead guy is probably pretty choked about it too. But murdering Hitler, preventing the second world war, saving millions of Jewish lives… Utilitarianism would argue that this is an acceptable murder.

It all seems fine and good, until you are a part of the minority. If the majority is happy and benefits from slavery, and it is only the minority that suffer because of it, would then it become morally acceptable? This little blunder has lead Utilitarians to add the “and reduces suffering” principle to their equation.

But what is happiness? What is suffering? Would it be morally good to provide enough opiates to the entire population so we blissfully drift through the rest of our lives? What defines a “good” outcome, if our definition of “good” can only be described as something that brings the most “good” to the most people? It’s circular logic that explains nothing.

Rational beings that we are, Utilitarians developed the measuring unit of a Util, which is a measurement of satisfaction. This, of course, does nothing to qualify what actually benefits society at large outside of giving it a fancy name.

Again, let’s give our ethical system the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that we can somehow measure human satisfaction with “utils” and then act in such a way to maximize those “utils”. How do we know that our actions will have the desired effect? Utilitarianism, and all forms of consequentialism, rely on a foreknowledge of the future to declare whether an action has moral value or not. One could argue that it is the intention to maximize Goodnes that counts, but if the sole value of consequentialism comes from its consequences, then intentions are meaningless. If you accidentally drop a glass on the floor and it shatters, because “you didn’t mean to” does not put the glass back together again.

So why bother coming up with an ethical system at all?

Moral Relativism: I have my own moral beliefs, built from years of growing up in a good, stable home with loving parents in a culture that offered just as much influence to those beliefs as my family. And you likely have differing beliefs. If I let you live your way, and you let me live mine, then why trifle with such meaningless things like morality?

But what if I want to beat the shit out of you? I’m sure I have my reasons. Would you impose your belief that you shouldn’t be beat up onto me? Even an act of self-defense is a moral assertion that this act of aggression will not stand. To decry the genital mutilation of female circumcision, or to rally against the torture of prisoners, or even to defend your loved ones from harm; all these are an imposition of culture and moral beliefs onto another. To claim Relativism and to make these assertions is either hypocritical, or self-centered ignorance. Could a moral relativist make the same stand as Immanuel Kant in regards to allowing atrocities for the sake of their moral standing? I doubt it.

What’s left? There the Golden Rule and all of its clones. Do unto others as you would have them to do you; or another version, do unto others as you would do to yourself. This works great until you realize that not everybody wants the same thing. The most glaring example is the horny man. The man is horny, he would want someone to force themselves sexually onto him, and so he obliges some college coed with the Golden Rule. Do unto others leads to rape.

Selfishness: Why not just be selfish? All the laissez-faire of moral relativism, without the hypocrisy. If I can maximize my happiness, I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s. There is actually a great deal of contemporary life advice that condones this type of morality. To improve the world, we don’t have to change the world, we only have to change the way we look at it. If we focus solely on ourselves, we can be happy. And after all, isn’t happiness the goal of human existence?

The mistake of selfish morality is the assumption that we are independent individuals inside a vacuum. However, even the base assumption of an individual, as Georg Hegel points out, necessarily requires others. I can only be me if I am not somebody else. The very essence of individuality requires a multitude of individuals wherein one can be separate.

Further flaws lie in the assumption of independence. No single person is independent. It is a myth of liberalism that we can strike out on our own. In today’s culture, we merely hide our dependence in a system of outsourcing. We are dependent on farmers to grow our food, on truck drivers to deliver it to stores, on stores to sell it to restaurants, on cooks to prepare it, and on servers to bring it to us, but we pretend independence by reducing these people to strangers, outsiders with no influence on our lives. Our system turns these people invisible so that the myth of independence can sustain itself. But the truth is we are interdependent. Just as we depend on others to perform tasks for us, so too do others depend on us. Even something as simple as depending on your neighbour on the bus not to stab you in the throat during your commute: we constantly rely on others for us to live out our lives.

An argument could be made that it is selfish to partake in this social contract because we would only do it so we can, as individuals, live out our lives relatively peacefully. But this social contract is more than just one individual depending on another, it is a union, an interdependence, where both foster the livelihood of the other.

And so selfishness cannot stand in place of a moral system, because ethical interaction between human beings is a necessary requisite for both the individual and for the community.

A grievous error that most ethical systems make is to exclude emotion from their conception. An ethical dilemma posed by Jean-Paul Sartre tells of a boy from Algiers whose father and brother have died in WW2, and he wishes to avenge them by going to France to join the resistance. However, his mother, having no one left save this boy, her last son, would be devastated by his departure. This is a scenario that cannot be plugged into the Categorical Imperative, the boy would not be treating his mother neither as a means nor an end if he were to leave her, there are too many unknowable variables to create a matrix of utils which would define its moral framework, the Golden Rule doesn’t apply (Yes, killing another soldier would go against the Golden Rule, but would allowing the spread of Nazi Germany? The boy could always take a non-combative role, with equal risk to his safety) It is a seemingly impossible ethical quandary, until you add emotion into the mix.

Why send aid to a country ravaged by natural disaster? Why fight so hard in the courts to save the life of a child whose parents have alternative beliefs that are endangering that child’s life? If the logical goal of our species is to survive, and our planet has finite resources and an overabundant population, would the rational solution not be to let these people die? Or the holocaust, where those who were considered weak or genetically inferior were rationalized as being outside the best interests of the species as a whole, and therefore eliminated. To submit wholly to reason as a means for morality is a tragic mistake.

My suggestion: I believe that morality should be a dialogue between all involved parties, on an equal footing of power. A prisoner cannot have a meaningful moral dialogue with his warden because the warden will always have sway over the prisoner. There must be absolute honesty on both sides, as any illusion would destroy the fabric of the dialogue. Any consensus reached must be flexible to change over time, as circumstances and preference are fluid. If dialogue is impossible, as it frequently is, any decision made will inevitably be an emotional one, and morality is unattainable. Logic does not work in an ethical formula, and human disposition towards ethical action invariably tends towards whatever we happen to feel like at the time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as hopefully I’ve demonstrated. We don’t always have to distrust our emotions, as they are required when a moral dialogue is impossible. We are always the ones who have to live with ourselves.

Another common ethical dilemma is the train filled with 100 people barreling too quickly towards a brick wall. The only option is to switch tracks, where unfortunately Snidely Whiplash has tied three damsels. Unable to stop, the conductor must either take no action and crash into the brick wall, killing 100 people, or switch tracks and kill three people. The Absolutist would suggest taking no action, as the active nature of killing the three individuals is worse than passive non-action, even if it resulted in the death of 100. The Utilitarian would change tracks, as it is a simple mathematical formula that three is a lesser number than a hundred. I would suggest that no moral outcome is possible, and the conductor will do whatever he or she feels to be the best solution, and any rationalization would happen after the fact.

The closest example I have been able to find of an ethical system similar to my suggestion is:

The Ethics of Care: This relatively new version of ethics is mostly ignored because of its associations with Feminism, as we still live in a male-dominated society. What it suggests is that we should care for each other. This is admittedly a vague ethical guideline, but the stipulations of this system are as follows: Attentiveness: We must be aware of what the person needs. Responsibility: In order to Care, we must take responsibility. Competency: We can’t half-ass our Care. Responsiveness: How does the Care receiver respond?

This method works great in a system built on dependence. Social workers, nurses, caregivers of all kinds can use this system to be sterling exemplars in their respective fields. But it still implies a power dynamic of dependence. The patient depends on the nurse, and therefore the nurse has power over the patient. For the vulnerable, it is not necessarily a bad thing to surrender yourself to the mercy of a caregiver. In the every day life of interdependence, however, I believe that the dialogue option, where both sides use attentiveness, responsibility, competency, and responsiveness to create a consensus is the only suitably moral solution to any problem.

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