Well, it’s time to bring this overly long series on ethics to an end, for now. The previous six posts have gathered a total of 390 comments at last count, and undoubtedly this post will add significantly to the total — a clear demonstration that moral philosophy is as popular and as controversial as always.
I sincerely hope that readers didn’t — despite my clear warnings — expect to find anything like an exhaustive treatment of the various aspects of ethics, nor to be served with my own original moral system emerging at the end of the series. This was simply an exercise in clarifying my thinking about something I care a lot about, and — as the motto of this blog says — to nudge truth to spring from argument amongst friends.
Nonetheless, I promised, and fully intend to deliver, some summary thoughts that have been shaped while doing the background readings for the series and then writing the individual entries. I tend to do much of my thinking while having discussions or writing (which for me is a time-delayed type of discussion), so this was the perfect medium to probe my own intuitions about moral philosophy. Here we go, then.
To begin with, I return to the opening essay, where I suggested that ethics is neither about absolute moral truths nor about relativism. The only sense I can make of the idea of absolute moral truths is in Platonic terms, similar to the way some mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics think of numbers, theorems and the like as having an ontological status independent of the human mind. Pythagoras’ theorem is, in a counter-intuitive and non-trivial sense, “out there.” But this can only mean that wherever conscious beings capable of abstract thought think along certain lines (i.e., about geometrical figures in plane geometry) they will have to agree that the theorem is true; certainly not in the sense that there is a non-physical realm where numbers and theorems happily while the time away.
Even so, the case for Platonism has certainly not been clinched for mathematics, and it looks even less promising for ethics. In other words, I agree with M.L. Mackie’s famous “argument from queerness” that “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” Not impossible, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, you know.
As for relativism, I simply find it preposterous, despite the fact that it is actually becoming increasingly popular among both the general public and professional philosophers. I think something is missing when someone says that moral rules are of a kind with rules of etiquette (if you actually act on such belief society will treat you as a psychopath, and rightly so), or that committing or not committing genocide cannot be distinguished from preferring vanilla or chocolate (chocolate is the objectively obvious answer, by the way). Yes, there is a significant amount of spatial and temporal cultural variation in what people value and what they consider moral or not. But the extent of such variation has been greatly exaggerated (see also here), and flies in the face of both a large number of human universals and of studies showing that even other social primates seem to share our sense of right and wrong about certain actions (intuitively, since presumably they don’t do philosophy).
In order to steer away from both the Scylla of absolutism and the Charybdis of relativism, therefore, I am convinced that the best way to think of ethics is as a set of tools to think rationally and instrumentally about how to achieve a society that is as just as possible, where people can flourish (in their varied ways) as much as possible. (Yes, I know, people keep asking what counts as well being: you’ll find a thorough discussion here.) Of course someone will immediately object that no such moral system can be “compelling,” and I honestly have no idea what they mean by that. Obviously, morality isn’t as “compelling” as, say, gravity. But neither is mathematics. You are perfectly free to disagree with the Pythagorean theorem, though that simply means you don’t understand geometry. Similarly, you can shrug off the entire idea of ethical reasoning and simply keep watching out for number one. Be my guest, but I’ll think of you as a psychopath or a pathological egoist, and I won’t invite you for dinner.
Okay, now what about the six central themes of this series? We have looked at the three fundamental theories of ethics: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. We have also looked at the concept of justice from the point of view of various social contract theories as well as of several — remarkably diverse! — ideas of what counts as equality.
To begin with, an important distinction is to be made, as we have seen, between consequentialism and deontology on the one hand and virtue ethics on the other. The first two are answers to the question: what is the right thing to do? The latter is an answer to the question: what sort of life should I live? The two questions are different enough that it really isn’t entirely clear to me why virtue ethics is considered an alternative to the other two.
Nevertheless, among these three, several readers have correctly picked up on my (qualified) sympathies for virtue ethics, properly updated and without the obvious stench of elitism that accompanied Aristotle’s version (oh, and no slavery; oh, and equal consideration for women). There are several reasons for this. First off, I simply can’t get past the fact that there are serious objections to consequentialism, and particularly to its chief mode, utilitarianism. Yes, I’ve read utilitarians’ responses to classic problems like the one posed by the doctor who is considering to cut up a healthy person in order to save five dying people. But I just don’t find them convincing enough. Utilitarians are forced to twist themselves into logical pretzels to avoid the obvious implications of an ethical system that cares only and exclusively about consequences. Consequences are important, but they are not the only or final arbiter of a moral life.
Deontology does incorporate directly ideas about rights, which are notoriously difficult to digest for utilitarians, but it does so at a high price. Without having to go to the extremes of Kant (who, as I mentioned, once famously said that it is “better the whole people should perish” than that injustice be done — one wonders, injustice to whom?) it just seems that a set of inflexible rules, and even more so a single all-encompassing rule like the categorical imperative, is far too blunt a tool to deal effectively with the variety of human experience. No, I think that if we followed either utilitarianism or deontology we would far too often arrive at monstrous ethical decisions with which we simply wouldn’t be able to live.
Which of course leaves virtue ethics as the last man standing. This is not an unproblematic option, because of the variety and complexity of human ways to flourish, and because it is about character, not about which particular actions are right or wrong. But it does capture the idea that there is something common to all human beings (and possibly other relevantly similarly social creatures), that life is better when people are fair to each other, refrain from violence if not absolutely necessary, act with integrity, respect other people’s civil liberties, have access to education and health care, and can generally pursue their interests with the utmost degree of freedom compatible with everyone else doing the same.
But virtue ethics is not a theory of society, it is a theory of individual behavior within society. Which brings us to social contracts and the various forms of egalitarianism. I tend to be sympathetic to a higher degree of egalitarianism than is materialized in the current state of affairs in the United States, but unlike Rawls I am not convinced that income and wealth ought to be equal except under very strict circumstances. I do, however, find the current level of income/wealth inequality in the United States appalling and indefensible except by a relatively small but exceedingly vocal horde of libertarians, Randians and Teapartiers.
I do find Rawls’ concept of a veil of ignorance to be by far the best way to think about a social contract, especially in multicultural societies. I especially like Rawls’ idea (embodied in his two principles of justice) that civil liberties ought to take precedence over economic advantages (precisely the opposite of what currently happens in the US). But it is certainly the case that Rawls’ ideas apply only if a society is guided by certain types of liberal values that have predominated in Western societies and in some non-Western ones (e.g., Japan). If you are into the lure of theocracies or totalitarian regimes you will be largely unmoved by his thought experiment. I wager that you and your society will be so much the worse for it.
Getting back to egalitarianism, however, even if we stay away from income and wealth it is pretty clear that much of the world (US included) is far from being anywhere near a just society. We still do not have complete formal equality of civil rights (think gay marriage), and arguably we are far from actual equality in that department (think about the conditions of a number of minorities, as well as persistent degrees of discrimination against women). We may say that all citizens have equal rights in front of the law, but the practice is such that we keep imprisoning a good number of innocent poor and uneducated people, while robber barons keep crashing the world economy and getting away with golden parachutes. We think that we live in a democracy where every citizen has one vote, but in fact the US Supreme Court has legally allowed corporations to freely buy elections, and we have a Congress occupied by a large number of millionaires (all currently serving US Senators are in that category) who make laws favoring their ilk. Not to mention the arcane two-Senators-per-State system which effectively means that the voters of Wyoming (the least populous state) are almost 69 times better represented than the voters of California (the most populous state).
So, I guess in the end I find myself to be a virtue ethicist when it comes to personal morality, with strong Rawlsian leanings in the social sphere, who would allow a limited amount of income and wealth disparity but is uncompromising about civil liberties, equality of representation and equality within the justice system. This is far from being a logically tight, perfectly coherent approach to ethics, of course. But, as Walt Whitman famously put it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”