My Ethical Beliefs

18 Jul

EthicsDuring the past year, I’ve invested a lot of time canvassing the fascinating landscape of contemporary ethics.  My study has significantly reformed my thought–starting as an intuitionist, I am now a kantian.  And though it means the positions I record below will change, I hope this process of reform does not end soon.

The following is a statement of my “beliefs”, starting with positions in meta-ethics and progressing to normative ethics.  I put “beliefs” in quotes because although I think it is legitimate to believe strongly about these matters, at the moment I do not.  I simply have not digested enough material, so “belief” would here best be interpreted as “provisionally attracted to.”  With that in mind, we turn to my “beliefs.”

The first thing I believe about ethics is that there are moral facts of the matter.  When I say an action, rule, virtue, or desire is wrong, I mean first there is a fact of the matter about what right and wrong is, and second that we can evaluate any action, rule, virtue, or desire against those facts.  This is cognitivism, the position that moral propositions are capable of being true or false.

Second, I believe ethical rationalism is true:  morality is but a matter of rationality. Moral facts boil down to the non-moral facts of theoretical and practical rationality.  What is right is just what is rational.  I combine this ethical rationalism with moral realism.  Moral realism asserts moral facts do not depend on the existence of minds, so there are facts of matter about what is right and wrong whether or not there are humans to apprehend those facts.  This means that whether or not the Nazis succeeded in brainwashing us all, the holocaust would still be wrong.

But how is this view compatible with ethical naturalism, the view that the natural world is all there is?  Where could these facts of the matter come from?  The answer to that question, I think, is that as soon as you have rationality, you have right and wrong.  Morality appears as soon as someone is capable of stepping back from their actions and reflecting before they act.  In short, ethical facts boil down to rational facts, and rational facts are just natural facts.  No bloated ontology required.

A common worry with this view is whether or not the atheist is compelled to act ethically.  Even granting there are facts of the matter about what is right and what is wrong, why should the atheist care?  If there is no cosmic enforcer to enact ultimate justice, for example–to reward me for moral actions in the afterlife–how can the atheist sacrifice his own self-interest to moral concerns?  As William Lane Craig puts it, on atheism the moral and the prudential are on a collision course.  He can see no reason to think atheists should choose a moral action over a self-interested action when a conflict presents itself.  This is the position of rational egoism–that what is rational for me is just what is good for me.

But I reject rational egoism.  Instead, I build on a theory of practical reason according to which ethical reasons just outweigh prudential reasons.  That is, when I step back and reflect on my behavior, I find that to be rational my self-interest must be overridden by ethical reasons.  There is much indeed to be said about just how reflection could lead you to that conclusion.  On that front, Christine Korsgaard has written an excellent book entitled “The Sources of Normativity” in which she dissects the chain of reasoning that could take you from non- or a- moral to moral.  Ultimately, this type of thinking builds on the fact that the non-sociopaths among us just are social creatures, full stop.  There is of course much more to be said about that account of practical reason, but that will have to do for now.

Here we make the transition from meta-ethics, concerned with the origins of morality, to normative ethics, concerned with what rules should guide our behavior.  If the kind of reasoning I’ve sketched above is successful, in my view, it leads to an ethical maxim that is kantian in nature–something like the Categorical Imperative:  Only act on that maxim which you could rationally will to be a universal law.  In other words, only behave in a way that you could rationally will everyone behave.

In order to rationally will that a maxim be universal, the maxim must pass two tests:  first, that of logical consistency, and second, that of self-interest.  To concretize this, consider the following two examples.  First, suppose we consider lying to further our self-interest.  In order for lying to be permissible, we must be able to rationally will that it is universally adopted.  Could we will a world in which everyone would go around telling lies?  No, because such a world is logically inconsistent, for it would be meaningless to tell a lie in a world where no one keeps their word anyway.  Therefore, since I cannot rationally will everyone lie as universal law, I and all others are obligated to refrain from it.  A second maxim is killing innocent persons for fun.  If I rationally willed that everyone act on the maxim to kill innocent persons for fun, although that world would be logically consistent, I myself might be the innocent person that gets killed, and so I cannot will it because it would be against myself interest.  So killing innocent persons for fun is impermissible.

One thing to notice about these examples is that kantianism renders objective moral rulesthat is, they are perspective-independent.  Regardless of whether you misapprehend the rational truth of the matter, whether by holding false beliefs or employing mistaken reasoning, there is a perspective-independent fact of the matter about which you can be wrong or right.  This objectivity comes with kantian universalizability–the feature of a moral theory that demands its judgments render universal and impartial obligations.

So, in my view, morality is an enterprise concerned with real, objective, overriding, and obligation-bestowing facts.  As a naturalist, such facts are simply facts about psychology:  facts about rationality, free will, and normativity in general.

This completes my very brief sketch of the ethical positions I am attracted to.  Of course, this account is incomplete.  I have not included a theory of the good or of values,  remarks about the primary object of moral evaluation or moral epistemology, or any comment on a wealth of other topics.  And for the positions I have sketched, I cannot offer anything like a justification of these beliefs here.

Hopefully, should anyone but myself be interested, the cornerstones of my current position are clear.


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  1. Kevin Southerland

    January 11, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Interesting Andy, though I have not delved into ethics and philosophy deeply. Forgive me if this seems offensive, but how does a particular habit of yours bear up under Kantian ethics: smoking? It is, to my knowledge, not logically inconsistent that I could will that everyone smoke as you do. It would also further my self-interest if I were the kind of person who enjoys smoking. Thus from a Kantian perspective, I do not believe I could call smoking wrong. However, could I call it wrong from the perspective of not serving the interest of others by damaging their health, even if they do not wish to partake of it? Ultimately, the case could be argued that smoking is in fact against my own self interest, since it does long term damage to my health or to those around me whom I care about who breathe in my secondhand smoke. But what of my own self interest to feed my nicotine craving or to fit in or the other reasons that people find themselves smoking? Who does one balance, from a Kantian perspective, multiple self-interests? I do not believe that this situation could be called morally ambiguous either, because it does not benefit others but rather harms them and myself, to feed a short term interest of my own. Finally, how does all this come down to your practical, day-to-day living? It seems to me that you might need to rethink some of the facets of your own lifestyle in order to be consistent with what you believe. A worldview is pointless if it does not control and/or guide you in everything you do. I cannot make you change but I do wish to make you think, regardless of how you come to your own conclusions.

    I submit this not as a stab but as a way to provoke thought.

  2. Andy Walters

    February 22, 2011 at 2:00 am

    Hi Kevin–

    Thanks for your comment. The first thing to say is that I make no excuses for my smoking–it is an addiction which I rather enjoy. It may well turn out that it is unethical, but I am not of the persuasion that I ought be the most ethical person I’ve ever known :) .

    That being said, you raise an interesting point about whether smoking is wrong on Kantianism. I think I could rationally will that everyone smoke, so long as it did not negatively affect my health. If this goes through, it would mean that I am not prohibited from smoking on Kantianism, and beyond that Kantianism would render no judgment. It is only on (by my lights, at least) an egoist philosophy that smoking is morally prohibited. If what is moral is just what is good for the agent, and smoking clearly is not, then smoking is prohibited. But since I don’t subscribe to egoism, I think I’ve escaped moral condemnation.

    I could not agree more that one’s morality ought to affect one day-to-day. But, in the grand scheme of things, I do not think smoking is nearly as important as, say, sending money to orphans in Africa. Nevertheless, I appreciate the thoughtful comment.