CHRISTIAN TRACTATUS - APPENDIX 4

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NON-THEISTIC ETHICS

A4.1 This Appendix attempts to demonstrate that it is possible to construct a system of ethics that is not undergirded by any particular form of theism, or indeed having any extramundane sanction.

A4.1.1 As such, it is to be expected that such a system of ethics might therefore be universally acceptable to reasonable people.

A4.1.2 This Appendix also points out some of the problems in the way of coming to a consensus on such an issue, and leaves unresolved many of the detailed working out of the issues. It is an exploratory paper only, an outline sketch of some of the issues involved in setting up a system of ethics that doesn't depend on divine authentication.

A4.2 The fundamental problem with non-theistic ethics is that we risk coming down to premises that are nothing but matters of opinion (even if most "reasonable" people share them). We risk having nothing underwriting these basic assumptions : no way of reasonably arguing against someone who refuses to accept them.

A4.2.1 However, this risk does not set ethics apart from other areas of potential knowledge. It also applies to our choice of final vocabulary in other areas of enquiry, as has been noted in the body of this paper.

A4.2.2 With this in mind, we prepare ourselves to address the possibility that ethics is simply a matter of choice : that of a society deciding how it wishes to live, what its goals are to be and what it is to value.

A4.2.2.1 While this is not fatal to an ethical system, in that it simply makes it pretend to relative rather than absolute truth, it is fatal to the program we have set ourselves - that of finding a system of ethics that is universally acceptable - unless we can expand the scope of society to include the whole of the Earth's population.

A4.2.2.2 Since ethics is not a solitary matter, this Appendix relates it to the individual in the context of a society.

A4.2.3 Because any society is part of the world, and is constrained by the world, we can expect certain ethical principles also to be constrained by the world. Hence, we may hope that conformity to the world may add an element of absolute truth to an appropriate ethical theory.

A4.3 As with any system that claims to provide knowledge, we can examine an ethical system both for internal consistency and for conformity to the world.

A4.3.1 That is, are there any test cases that show the ethical system to be self-contradictory (internally incoherent) ?

A4.3.2 Alternatively, are there any indications that the theory is inconsistent with the rest of our beliefs about the world or with our knowledge of the world (externally incoherent) ? Such external incoherence includes impracticality.

A4.4 I would like to draw a distinction between two distinct aspects of any ethical theory that should not be confused. From now on, I will use the terms ethics and morality, respectively, for these two aspects.

A4.4.1 I will use the term ethics with reference to the principles that underlie right action, irrespective of any praise or blame that might accrue to any individual action or agent.

A4.4.1.1 This is not to suggest that "virtue is its own reward". For instance, a priori, the principles of right action might well turn out to be hedonistic, at least in part. However, I am suggesting that ethical theory is primarily prospective : it looks forward to the results of actions.

A4.4.2 I will reserve the term morality for the concern with awarding praise or blame to individual actions or agents consequent on successful or unsuccessful attempts to implement ethical or unethical actions. Hence, I am suggesting that morality is essentially retrospective, as in the case of moral judgements of past actions.

A4.4.2.1 I consider morality as defined above to be both relatively unimportant and to be a deception.

A4.4.2.2 Applying praise or blame to actions is simply a way of enforcing an ethical system by social pressure (or threatened social displeasure) without resorting to physical force. Alternatively, moral blame may be used to provide ethical justification for the use of force. There are a number of responses to such states of affairs :-

a). Firstly, moral praise or blame is likely to be based on fuzzy emotions rather than dispassionate judgement or genuine knowledge.

b). Secondly, as in all things competitive, the ultimate ends of ethics are likely to become confused with, or to be replaced by, ancillary matters. What is important in any system of ethics is the encouragement of right action, not the apportionment of social prestige.

c). The possibility of the ethical use of force in the maintenance of a society is discussed below, as is the possibility of a purely individualistic system of ethics, that does not require the maintenance of a society.

A4.5 The aim of ethics is to determine the rules of conduct which have the highest probability of achieving those ends towards which we think our society (or the individuals within it) should aim.

A4.5.1 Therefore, ethics has no interest in the retrospective justification or condemnation of a person's actions (as in a court of law) or even of his motives. Evaluating a person's moral worth is simply not the issue.

A4.5.2 I include an element of probability in the definition of the goal of ethics because the consequences of any course of action are seldom totally predictable.

A4.5.3 Because we have chosen to define ethics as a system of rules or principles by which to achieve ends, we need to examine the criticism that we are adopting a policy of "the ends justify the means".

A4.5.3.1 I think we can circumvent this problem by including amongst our set of ends the intention not to perpetrate any of the acts we would find objectionable if used as means.

A4.5.3.2 It is possible to think of desperate situations in which normally outlawed means would become allowable. However, such situations would simply represent the in extremis prioritisation of ends.

A4.6 A fundamental question in building any theory of ethics is : should ethics be individual or collective ? Because, as a contingent fact, we live in societies, I suggest that ethical principles have to be treated as collective.

A4.6.1 Let us assume that an individual acts so as to achieve his own ends wholly at the expense of the ends of others (or, at least, ignoring the aims of others). In this case, he can only expect others to act likewise. This will lead to many of his aims being thwarted and a lot of energy being wasted on conflict. Consequently, he will have a greater chance of increasing the percentage of fulfilled aims if a principle of co-operation is adopted rather than one of confrontation.

A4.6.1.1 The above argument bears a formal resemblance to Kant's Categorical Imperative, which states that one should "act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (The Metaphysics of Morals).

A4.6.1.2 It is to be noted that the above argument is undermined if any individual's main goal is the subversion of the goals of others (as is the case in many children's squabbles and religious & political disputes). This is a special case of a breakdown of final vocabulary, as noted above.

A4.6.1.3 In such a case, I can see no alternative to physical force as the ultimate enforcer of a social ethical system. Any society has to determine what kind of actions it is not prepared to tolerate. These will usually be those actions that will, if left unrestrained, lead to the dissolution or distortion of the society.

A4.6.1.4 Hence, either the society submits itself to a revolution, and accepts the deviant actions, or it resists the changes. In the latter case, since people are corporeal beings, physical restraint will ultimately be required.

A4.6.2 While a strategy may be wholly competitive or partly or wholly co-operative, the fact that the strategies of others are involved implies that an ethical theory that aims to achieve its ends cannot ignore the aims of others. I will argue that aiming at a measure of co-operation is the most efficient strategy.

A4.7 A principle that will assist us in defining ethical strategies is that of reflexivity. That is, that we should not (in general) do to others what we would not have them do to us.

A4.7.1 I believe this statement to be true because (as a contingent fact) we share a large number of needs and goals with other people.

A4.7.2 This is the negative version of the Golden Rule ("do to others as you would have them do to you"). My objections to the general application of the Golden Rule are two-fold :-

A4.7.2.1 Firstly, the Golden Rule presupposes that all peoples' aims and desires are identical (or at least similar). In fact, though we have observed areas of commonality, what I may want in any particular situation may not be what you would want. It is possible to ameliorate the Rule by modifying a rephrased version from "do to another as you would have him do to you if you were in his position" to "do to another as you would have him do to you if you were him". Unfortunately, this presupposes an intimate knowledge of other people's desires which may, in practice, be difficult to obtain.

A4.7.2.2 Secondly, the Golden Rule only makes sense (however virtuously altruistic it may be) in a theocratic rewards-based world view. It is too onerous for consistent non-theocratic application.

A4.7.3 A neglect of the Golden Rule, but general acceptance of its negative counterpart, may be seen as enlightened self-interest. The Golden Rule aims at equality in society and actively aims at "doing good". On the other hand, the negative version only seeks to avoid oppression. Consequently, while it may avoid the ruthless exploitation of one's abilities at the expense of others, it does not command the expenditure of one's talents in their favour.

A4.7.3.1 It is to be noted, nonetheless, that a judicious application of the Golden Rule is not proscribed by the system of ethics I am proposing. It is optional and to be encouraged, but not normative.

A4.8 In any ethical system, we need to provide a procedure whereby we can categorise an action as right or wrong.

A4.8.1 I take it that an action is right if it is likely to increase the weighted sum of good available to those (including myself, the agent) likely to be affected by it. We can thereby define the set of right actions (in any context) if we can define what we count as being good.

A4.8.1.1 From the above it will be seen that an action can be right without being the best available, ie. without it being intended to produce the maximum good from the options available.

A4.8.1.2 My use of the term good here does not have the moral overtones of "praiseworthy". Actions are right, not good. States of affairs are good (or bad). The term good is used here in the sense of "a good thing", rather than "morally approved".

A4.8.1.3 The concept of the weighted sum of the good is discussed in a later section.

A4.8.2 The term wrong is not equivalent to "not right". An action cannot be categorised as wrong simply because it cannot be categorised as right. A large proportion of our actions are simply functional, with no ethical dimension.

A4.8.2.1 Care has to be taken in evaluating the consequences of actions to include the wider context. There will be occasions when an act will be categorised as right when, in isolation, it does not increase the sum of the available good, though it does when more remote factors are taken into account. Such a case would be when a persistent failure to act would result in an even worse state of affairs. In such a way, judicial or military acts may (usually or on occasion) be categorised as right.

A4.8.2.2 One can conceive of difficult situations in which one is compelled to act in order to produce evil results, or where even a failure to act may result in evil consequences. In such circumstances, no right action is possible, though wrong actions may be.

A4.8.2.3 In situations such as the above, an action may, therefore, be categorised as wrong if it is likely to decrease the good when a simple failure to act would have a less detrimental effect (provided a null act is possible).

A4.8.2.4 Similarly, an action would be categorised as wrong if it is likely to decrease the good when a readily available alternative act would have a less detrimental effect.

A4.8.2.5 In the above, we must not forget that moral judgements are not the issue, nor whether a particular individual would, in practise, be able or willing to obey our ethical rules. The only relevant issue is the determination of the correct course of action.

A4.9 Since we have defined right action to be parasitic on our conception of the good, what is it that constitutes the good ?

A4.9.1 In the introduction to this Appendix, I implied that ethical systems contain elements both of relative and of absolute truth. The good things that are prized by a society split into those that are that society's free choice (and are not further justifiable by appeals to the world) and those good things that are justifiable by appeals to the world.

A4.9.2 The good things that are justifiable by appeals to the world (for which justification will presently be given) are such as :-

a). Physical life and health, including those things (in due proportion) that make life and health possible (such as food, clothing, shelter).

b). Freedom of the individual to pursue his own projects. This infrastructural good is a prerequisite for all else and is to be taken to include freedom from molestation by others.

A4.9.3 Examples of goods that are not justifiable by appeals to the world are such as :-

a). A society's form of government (given that it provides those goods identified in the previous section).

b). A society's cultural identity.

A4.9.4 How can we justify this distinction between natural and arbitrary (cultural) goods ? The naming convention just given is one such way. The first set of goods may be seen to be justified by "nature" in the sense that, for instance, the basic necessities of life are the natural prerequisites of any human life.

A4.9.5 However, are we justified in placing freedom of action & freedom from molestation in this category (as we have done) ? The arguments for & against may be broken down as follows :-

A4.9.5.1 Arguments against freedom as a natural good :-

a). Few societies, both historically and at present, have allowed such privileges to many of their members.

b). It seems that few species have a great deal of concern for the individuals that make up their membership.

c). Hence, it may be that the modern liberal value placed on individual human liberty is simply a matter of choice that individuals (and, occasionally, societies) prefer.

A4.9.5.2 Arguments in favour of freedom as a natural good :-

a). What may be called a "principle of fecundity" may be appealed to. Observation of the world demonstrates that each species has found a niche in which it can operate with a measure of freedom.

b). Whereas certain species (such as ants) operate best without individual liberty, human history demonstrates that individual human liberty leads to greater quantities of other goods (whether natural or cultural) being made available to the society as a whole. The sole proviso is that this liberty should not lead to anarchy, lack of social cohesion & lack of cooperation.

A4.9.5.3 Consequently, a second application of the principle of fecundity to free human individuals implies that the principle of individual human freedom can be naturally justified.

A4.10 By defining the good in the way we have, we have adopted an essentially consequentialist (utilitarian) view.

A4.10.1 The strict consequentialist view defines an action or strategy as right if it has the highest probability of maximising the good. That is, if the action is expected to lead to the greatest sum of good for those capable of being influenced by it (including the agent himself).

A4.10.1.1 We have reduced the demands by consequentialism by insisting only that the good is increased rather than maximised.

A4.10.2 In order to perform calculations to decide right action within the consequentialist view, the good (otherwise known as utility) must be summable over individuals. This immediately leads to problems.

A4.10.3 If utility is equated with the value or quantity of some good (such as money) that is directly summable over individuals without qualification, then goods of utility X could be divided between (say) two individuals in any manner we wish with equal rightness of action. For example, we could either divide the money equally or apportion all of it to one and none to the other. In either case, the sum of utility is X, making the two options ethically indistinguishable.

A4.10.4 Similarly, no distinction could be made between selfishness and altruism. It might be ethically immaterial whether I expend my energies on providing quantity X of good for myself or for another. However, either extreme is likely to be unacceptable. The former extreme violates our principle of reflexivity, the latter additionally brings us to a situation that is only sufferable within a theistic world view with a future rewards structure.

A4.10.5 Therefore, scaling factors are required to ensure that no individual is left out. Let us call the scaling factor the utilitarian metric, Mij.

A4.10.5.1 Let us assume that the population (including future generations) capable of being affected by the potential actions of a particular individual i is W, that the quantity or value of a quantifiable good G available to i is X, and that the utilitarian metric applicable to i is Mi. Then, the total utility, U(X, W), resulting from i's apportionment of X is :-

U(X, W) = SWXjMij, where SXj = X and SW sums over all j e W.

A4.10.5.2 What form does the utilitarian metric take ? We can set some bounds as follows :-

a). - < SWXjMij < + , whenever - < X < + .

b). M will vary with the good X and the population W under consideration. Some goods are optional luxuries while others are essentials. Also, the quantity of good G already possessed by the individuals j e W will affect the marginal utility of a further Xj of G to j.

c). Because of the decreasing marginal utility of any good, in all cases, U(Xj) / Xj ® 0 as Xj ® .

d). In the case of any essential good G of utility X, of which the Xj represent the j's total holdings, U(Xj) ® - as Xj ® 0.

e). A correction will be needed to prevent U(Xj=0) = - for even an essential G. This is because on occasions, such as in time of war or where X is insufficient to satisfy all of W, we will have no option but to sacrifice some individuals.

f). A further correction will usually need to be added to protect the interests of the person i making the ethical decision. That is, Mij increases as j ® i. This protective zone may also apply to the interests of others of his choice (such as his family), though not to the exclusion of all others. Both moderate selfishness & directed altruism are to be considered ethical.

g). If j e W is a member of a future generation, Mij ® 0 as generations progress.

h). There is no reason why any mathematical function should satisfy these criteria. However, it is to be noted that a logarithmic function satisfies c & d above, and that a negative exponential satisfies f & g, these being functions of quantity of good (X) and distance of relationship respectively.

A4.10.5.3 The only problem we have addressed above is one of partition. We have not yet discussed the issue of the choice of production of goods or of the utilitarian difference between goods.

A4.10.5.4 A critical issue is that, with resource R at our disposal, we have the ability to produce goods G, H or I . . . (or a combination of goods). How do we decide what to produce ? Our calculation so far shows how the effective quantity (utility) of a good may vary with its distribution, but not how to arbitrate between goods : how to weigh G versus H, for instance.

A4.10.5.5 This is a complex question because, as we have noted, the marginal utility of Xj to j depends on j as well as (quantitatively & qualitatively) on X & the underlying good G.

A4.10.6 It is always to be noted that we do not want to constrain our individual into always making full use of resource R. He has R at his disposal, and an option open to him is to do nothing with it if the utilitarian calculations allow.

A4.10.6.1 This theory avoids the situation of selfish "haves" exploiting the "have nots" in two ways :-

a). Application of the principle of reciprocity by the "haves", though this is not explicit in the calculations.

b). Revolutionary pressure. That is, the disadvantaged in society will be forced to act so as to increase the weighted utility of the good by taking from the "haves", who will thereby be constrained to make concessions.

A4.11 The stance I am adopting here is that of a liberal ironist. This term, (but not necessarily the meaning I apply to it) is due to Richard Rorty.

A4.11.1 I use the term liberal to mean the view that as much freedom as possible should be given to people to act as they like and to believe what they like provided that they do not transgress too much on the freedom of others by so doing.

A4.11.2 While agreeing with Rorty (and Shklar) that "cruelty is the worst thing we do", I do not use this notion to define the liberal attitude, if only because cruelty (in the sense of hurting another) is a risk we undertake if we seek to interact with others meaningfully and deeply. A society that avoided cruelty at all costs would be too insipid.

A4.11.3 I borrow Rorty's term ironist, but use it to mean one who realises that all things are contingent (ie. could have been otherwise), who does not take himself too seriously and whose realisation that all knowledge is no more than probable allows him to leave space for the views and actions of others.

A4.11.4 However, I do not agree that our culture as a whole (and especially our scientific knowledge) is a chance development which could have been arbitrarily otherwise. There are obvious contingencies everywhere, but the fact (as I take it) that culture and science are responses to the world, which is given (even if we and it could, in a different world, have been otherwise), places constraints on the development of science and culture, including ethics.



© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
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