the What-about of Ethics

Discussions that deal with moral issues. Key questions in ethics include: How should one live? What is right (or wrong) to do? What is the best way for humans to live?

the What-about of Ethics

Postby hyksos on October 9th, 2018, 5:41 pm 

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that forms the concrete foundation of politics. Ethics does not attempt to produce accurate descriptions the world. Instead, it is about what we should or should not do as people. In the words of Thomas Jefferson :
Government takes action. It does not decide truth.



The Zeroth Law of Ethics = there are no right answers in ethics.

Absolutely every conclusion that is reached is a compromise between two evils. In political philosophy, the radical Far Left is just as much on a slippery foundation, as the Far Right (and the alt-Right) is. This is always true even in spite of the (often ferocious) confidence those extremists have in their own views.

Always be vigilant and always be awake towards people in your life who have complete certainty in their ethical principles. In many cases, this person may be a religious fanatic, and they have concluded that all ethical and political puzzles have been "solved by the Bible". It only takes pointing out the 1.3 billion people in Asia who are Hindu, Buddhist, or some combination thereof. (that's a billion , with a 'b'). Thus the conclusion that religion resolves all ethical dilemmas is prima facie false. Religion itself is not a "completed science".

The Great and Wonderful What-About
The study of ethics does not proceed like the study of science, or the study of physics. The literal manner in which the studying and reading is done is very alien to reading mathematics and science. In science, any particular topic always goes in a direction, closer and closer to its essential claims. The more you study about theories of electromagnetism, the closer and closer you draw to Maxwell's Equations. Maxwell's Equations are a summary of the entire phenomenon in 4 little equations. You gain a stronger and stronger sense that these equations are essential, and that all other phenomena normally studied in isolation are all derivatives of the fundamental formulas. The same thing can happen with cosmology, or with mechanical engineering, or ___ {insert random mathematics or science topic here}

In ethics, this does not happen at all. Instead, reading about the main personalities in ethics leads from one marginal sidenote down into another. In trying to flesh out utilitarian philosophers, you will be drawn to cracks and fissures, and investigating the cracks opens up another door of investigation into another rabbit hole. And then that rabbit hole leads into another maze, and soon you are lost in a labyrinth, far away from where you began.

Some ethical theories are so powerful they had a real effect on history, and gave rise to entire "Eras" in history like the Enlightenment and even perhaps key revolutions and even the birth of new nations. Despite this, when you go read about them, your mind will be inexorably drawn to such questions :
  • "What about this?"
  • "What about that?"
  • "How does this ethical theory deal with this? Or with that?"
This is the great What-About of ethics. All ethical theories have weaknesses. And trying to patch those weaknesses with more ethical rules never leads to a concrete, ultimate conclusion. Only rabbit holes leading into rabbit holes are found. No certainty is ever obtained in ethics. If you know someone in your real life who postures themselves as having some secret access to the resolution of all ethics, that person is engaging in a toxic form of thinking.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby TheVat on October 9th, 2018, 7:03 pm 

Occasionally someone does hit on something that seems common sense and isn't served up with religious trimmings. Tolstoy had one that was something like: the first rule of life is be kind. The second rule is... be kind. Etc.

I guess simple aphorisms work because they don't rest on a complex body of theory. You hear them and your mind and heart reflect on them and you're able to see that, yes, treating others with kindness does seem to enrich human life. Nor do they require dogmatic certainty, which you correctly identify as hazardous. You can just try being kind and compassionate and see how that goes in your life situations.

How would you be kind to Hitler, one might then ask. (your great what-about) Well, ethics only comes to life in actual life situations. Maybe if the right person had been kinder to Hitler, it would have saved untold misery and millions of lives. Or maybe, the kindest action would have been assassination. Alas, that latter action would require a degree of certainty that most of us would not have. For instance, what if there was the chance the kindly putting down the mad dog Hitler caused him to be replaced by someone even worse... and better at strategy? We might have gotten a world like the one in Philip K. Dick's "Man in the High Castle. "

Perhaps aphorisms like Tolstoy's work best in smaller and more mundane matters....
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 9th, 2018, 9:41 pm 

My favourite question is: What about the dominoes?
If we do this, what-all will happen as an inescapable result?
(Then: what are escapable results? That is, consequences that we can predict and either forestall or remedy.)
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby BadgerJelly on October 10th, 2018, 12:20 am 

Hyksos -

Can you explain:

Always be vigilant and always be awake towards people in your life who have complete certainty in their ethical principles.


And

If you know someone in your real life who postures themselves as having some secret access to the resolution of all ethics, that person is engaging in a toxic form of thinking.


Are these not your personal views? Do you believe them or not? If you believe them should I view you as being “certain”? Or are you saying doubt is the highest moral stance to take ... in which case ... :/

Of course I am being pedantic here. I just think you’ve worded this difficult thought with too much room for contradiction.

Ideas of “ethics” and “morality” I find to be extremely interesting and confusing. Personally I belief we cannot act any manner without some sense of moral conviction - be it viewed as faulty with hindsight or not.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 10th, 2018, 1:20 pm 

One of the things I find interesting and was mentioned above is the time frame in which a particular ethical question is considered. It is similar to do the ends justify the means question. If something you do reduces suffering today but may increase it in the future then what? It is elated to some degree to the marshmallow test and delayed gratification.

Another question is if a distinction can be made between personal and public morality. You could call it the go along to get along or the sum of all possible games problem. I like to frame it as the Historian Gibbon might have. Is the world better off because of the Christian brotherly love influence on the Roman empire or would we better off if Rome's rather brutal traditional morality had carried on.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby davidm on October 10th, 2018, 1:42 pm 

wolfhnd » October 10th, 2018, 11:20 am wrote: Is the world better off because of the Christian brotherly love influence on the Roman empire or would we better off if Rome's rather brutal traditional morality had carried on.


Or could that be a false dichotomy, and even an inaccurate representation of the two systems to begin with?
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 10th, 2018, 3:26 pm 

davidm » Wed Oct 10, 2018 5:42 pm wrote:
wolfhnd » October 10th, 2018, 11:20 am wrote: Is the world better off because of the Christian brotherly love influence on the Roman empire or would we better off if Rome's rather brutal traditional morality had carried on.


Or could that be a false dichotomy, and even an inaccurate representation of the two systems to begin with?


I wouldn't say it was a dichotomy because of other factors and is a necessary oversimplification using a historical reference to frame the question. Alternative histories are by their nature speculative but human nature is relatively constant.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby davidm on October 10th, 2018, 3:55 pm 

What about the brutal traditions of Christianity? The crusades? Civil-War era apologetics for human slavery? Voting for Donald Trump? Hounding gay people? Marginalizing the poor? Trying to control women's bodies? Rationalizing sexual abuse?

Yes, not all Christians subscribed/subscribe to these but so what? Then we just get into the no true Scotsman fallacy.

You evidently think the world is better off because of Christianity. I see no evidence to support this.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 10th, 2018, 4:52 pm 

davidm » Wed Oct 10, 2018 7:55 pm wrote:What about the brutal traditions of Christianity? The crusades? Civil-War era apologetics for human slavery? Voting for Donald Trump? Hounding gay people? Marginalizing the poor? Trying to control women's bodies? Rationalizing sexual abuse?

Yes, not all Christians subscribed/subscribe to these but so what? Then we just get into the no true Scotsman fallacy.

You evidently think the world is better off because of Christianity. I see no evidence to support this.


I tend to side with Gibbon although it has become an unpopular view. On the other hand if we look to the tenets of Christianity and see it as reformed Judaism then the arguments presented concerning the actions of people who call themselves Christians that are not in accordance with the texts are a strawman. I don't know why people are so focused on events that remove the texts from their historical context however vague that context may be.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 10th, 2018, 7:03 pm 

In 1760, it wasn't very smart to criticize Christianity. Gibbon did sneak in a few remarks and open questions regarding its origins and early times.

But the question of whether Europe would have been better off if the Roman tradition of religious tolerance and military stricture had continued to evolve in that environment is impossible to answer. Very difficult even to speculate, because of the added unknown factors of Islam. (Would it even have been invented if Christianity had been unsuccessful; would it have grown aggressive and expansionist without the threat of Christian aggression and expansionism, etc.) Too many unknowns.

That Christianity as introduced into Europe through Roman occupation (force) along with missionaries (persuasion) certainly did not evolve on the principles of brotherly love. It was dogmatic, oppressive, punitive and utterly intolerant.

Mounted dictators with eagles on their standards or mounted dictators with crosses on their tunics. Not much of a choice. Just look at the statues in all the main squares of all the cities of the world: it's practically the same guy, any religion, any uniform, and colour skin.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 10th, 2018, 8:47 pm 

Anacharsis Cloots, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Baron d'Holbach, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Jacques-André Naigeon, Marquis de Sade

Other than this small objection I concede that another analogy may be useful.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 10th, 2018, 10:41 pm 

I'm curious why that batch of names, or that period, or that country holds such significance.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 10th, 2018, 10:50 pm 

Just a random batch of atheists.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 10th, 2018, 11:15 pm 

Doesn't look random to me. Pretty much contemporary, Franco, late 18th century.
Anyway, what has a list of atheists, even if it were random, to do with the subject?
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby hyksos on October 11th, 2018, 12:04 am 

Wow that didn't take long.

Do we have people on this forum who believe that religion is a completed science of ethics?
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 11th, 2018, 1:19 am 

I don't see what difference it makes what people believe, evidence and reason.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby davidm on October 11th, 2018, 10:40 am 

wolfhnd » October 10th, 2018, 8:50 pm wrote:Just a random batch of atheists.


Which was meant to demonstrate something or other? If so, the demonstration is opaque.

Shall we talk further about the other crimes committed down the ages by your religion of "brotherly love"? Such as the destruction of native American culture by the conquistadors under the sign of the cross?
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 11th, 2018, 12:44 pm 

The problem as I tried to point is that you can't put religion in a box and say it's just superstition so you can dismiss it. More importantly Christianity in the period I was referring to was a cult not what we generally think of as a religion. As the cult was absorbed into the existing power structure it became a religion. Religion as a completed science is a straw man. We are not having a theological discussion but a historical one.

If you don't like Christianity as a basis to compare personal and public morality we could try the Buddhist kingdom's of what is now Indonesia. While we may think of Buddhism as a peaceful religion of personal introspection today in Indonesia in the eighth and ninth centuries Buddhist kings were busy conquering their neighbors. Like Christianity Buddhism can be thought of as having begun as philosophical cult within an established religious tradition in this case a Hindu dominated society. In both cases there is an obvious disconnect between the philosophy of the cult and the actions of the more secular authorities that adopted at least in name the "religion".

Religion as an ideology is not particularly unique. It would be absurd to say that Stalin's Russia was not communist but many a Marxist will argue that Stalinism is not Marxism. There were many "good" communists and many "bad" communists in Russia. The question is if personal morality can be substantiated or transformed to the body politic.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 11th, 2018, 1:01 pm 

wolfhnd » October 11th, 2018, 11:44 am wrote:The problem as I tried to point is that you can't put religion in a box and say it's just superstition so you can dismiss it.

You can probably dissect each religion, as you can each political ideology, put the cult practice into a box and bury it - preferably in an active volcano - and then consider the philosophical principle of the pure theory.
That might be a lot more interesting than the study of what kind of travesty emperors through history have made of every single one.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby TheVat on October 11th, 2018, 1:01 pm 

MOD NOTE:

Let's try to treat this as a philosophical ethics thread that poses the following (from the OP):

" No certainty is ever obtained in ethics. "

We have other threads that get into personal versus public spirituality, cultural and political factors in the spread of major religions, and so on. Some are here, some are over in Religion forum.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 11th, 2018, 1:51 pm 

Duly noted. Okay, then:
Why is no certainty ever obtained in ethics?
which might be approached stepwise:
Can certainty be obtained by any means?
and if so,
By what means and method can it be obtained?
then:
How does the process of ethics preclude that result?
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby hyksos on October 11th, 2018, 6:21 pm 

wolfhnd » October 11th, 2018, 8:44 pm wrote:The problem as I tried to point is that you can't put religion in a box and say it's just superstition so you can dismiss it.

I don't know who you are responding to here, but we are not adjudicating Christiandom in the west in this thread. (In fact, that topic isn't even fit for this section of the forum. There is, after all, a Religion section here) Reminder : this is the Ethics section.

To try to re-focus. All ethical theories can be attacked with "Well what about this situation where etc?" . All ethical theories will fail in hand-picked situations -- in many cases these will expose their deep weaknesses. All ethical systems have deep weaknesses.

Christianity may have an enormous amount to offer in terms of morality and ethical decision-making. But like all ethical theories, it will be just as incomplete as all the other ones. If the study of ethics itself does not convince you of this through induction, then one can point out the vast differences in world religions. Christianity will conflict in many places with Islam on ethical positions. And then both of those will conflict with Hinduism. The basket of religions is as conflicted and incomplete as a basket of Virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and social contract theories would be.

Why pick on religion and Divine Command? (someone asked). The reason is because if you venture a few meters off this forum you will meet people who contend that the Christian Bible is a complete , exhaustive, and perfected account of all human morality and ethics, and no other books are needed. Those people are the worst offenders. As pervasive as their belief is in the public dialog -- it can be disproven through various angles of attack. You can deny it through a study of ethics, through a study of the history of governments, and you can deny it through comparative religion.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 11th, 2018, 7:58 pm 

hyksos » October 11th, 2018, 5:21 pm wrote:To try to re-focus. All ethical theories can be attacked with "Well what about this situation where etc?" . All ethical theories will fail in hand-picked situations -- in many cases these will expose their deep weaknesses. All ethical systems have deep weaknesses.

Christianity may have an enormous amount to offer in terms of morality and ethical decision-making. But like all ethical theories, it will be just as incomplete as all the other ones.

Wait.
Is there a distinction to be made between "completeness" and "certainty'; between a principle and theory?

One might posit that the central Christian principle - love thy neighbour as thyself - is a sound basis for ethical behaviour, and is, in fact, the central tenet of many other ethical frameworks, both religious and secular, even if it's expressed in slightly different terms. I'm guessing that it may be the moving force behind all ethical impulse.
One might suggest that it's a simple guiding principle we need, rather than a complex theory. The one Braininvat mentioned (Be kind) is a good example. Such a simple principle can be applied by the youngest and feeblest-minded member of any society, in almost any situation that individual may encounter in normal life, while an exhaustive, sophisticated ethical system would be available only to a small intellectual elite, and therefore not very useful. Worse, by its inaccessibility, it would inevitably become a tool of power, like any religious doctrine.

Why pick on religion and Divine Command?

Divine command is not essential to the principle. The principle either works or doesn't, on its own, no regardless of its provenance.
.. people who contend that the Christian Bible is a complete , exhaustive, and perfected account of all human morality and ethics, and no other books are needed.

That doesn't matter. Most don't know what they're talking about; the ones who do are disingenuous. And you may meet people who say that about any philosophy or science.
In the case of religion, first you have to disconnect the world-view (Where do we fit into the scheme of things? - essential) from its creation/origin mythology (fanciful stories from long ago - optional). Then, disregard the idolatry, the zealotry, the dogmatism, the sects, factions and power struggles. Consider only that central directive, the answer to:

How should we live?

How useful would be a complete theory, that covers every situation, when human society itself is not complete: it changes with climate, technology, the movement of peoples, the environment? A principle, however, can be adapted to all circumstances.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby BadgerJelly on October 12th, 2018, 1:14 am 

It would seem that a truly “better” ethics would necessarily require some doubt and skepticism. Unlike wit hfields like physics the landscape of the ethical world is difficult to measure and much more plastic.

Then there is the other problem of defining “ethics” in order to come to some base agreement over what it is meant to about and who/what its theoretical principles serve.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby TheVat on October 12th, 2018, 11:53 am 

I like what Serpent said about principles that can be adapted in a fairly universal way. I think ethics is usually defined in terms of finding such principles that have universal applicability and an interpersonal logic that crosses all cultural lines. For example, it's generally agreed that fostering relationships of trust between people is good for any sort of social group. Actions that lower trust are held to be negative and antithetical to the general welfare. Actions that increase trust are more valued. In any society that has automobiles, for example, a merchant who rolls back the odometer is considered unethical, and is held to be doing harm to the relationship of trust and transparency between seller and buyer. (He is also stealing money from the buyer, by over-valuing an old car, which has other social harms, as well)
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby wolfhnd on October 12th, 2018, 5:08 pm 

I will reformulated my point. We concede to the state the ethical responsibility to determine when lethal aggression is required outside of an immediate threat to our personal safety. The defense of the many has different rules than the right to self defense.

Since religion was brought into the discussion by the OP it seems necessary to point out that the original Christian texts talk about personal morality and avoids the states responsibility as in give on to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's. To the extent that are ethics are bound up in Christian dogma that seems to leave a dangerous opening for the abuse of state power. The explanation seems to be the eschatological origins of the original texts but here we are concerned with how current views on ethics evolved.
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 12th, 2018, 8:46 pm 

wolfhnd » October 12th, 2018, 4:08 pm wrote:I will reformulated my point. We concede to the state the ethical responsibility to determine when lethal aggression is required outside of an immediate threat to our personal safety. The defense of the many has different rules than the right to self defense.

I see that as a valid point. In any ethical system, we need to make room for the functions of the individual in personal relationships and in relation to the group, and also define the responsibilities of the state to the individual and the collective. These can become very complex classes of relations in a large, diverse society. Even so, each relationship should be definable simply enough to learn in Grade 4.

Since religion was brought into the discussion by the OP it seems necessary to point out that the original Christian texts talk about personal morality and avoids the states responsibility as in give on to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's. To the extent that are ethics are bound up in Christian dogma that seems to leave a dangerous opening for the abuse of state power. The explanation seems to be the eschatological origins of the original texts but here we are concerned with how current views on ethics evolved.

That's going to get more complicated than I have time for right now.
Briefly, for the moment: remember to draw a line under the NT. Guy is supposed to have said:
"I give you a new commandment."
Many modern Christians pretend to forget that and go cherry-picking their values from the OT.
(But the Caesar remark was about taxes, not military service.)
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Re: the What-about of Ethics

Postby Serpent on October 12th, 2018, 11:36 pm 

Follow-up.
Jesus* couldn't have dealt with the question of state control, state obligation, violence and the military, because he was the citizen of an occupied nation. No army, no arms, no rights. He didn't mix into the Roman way of doing things, or any revolutionary activity. That whole moral jurisdiction is left wide open by the original doctrine of Christianity. Whatever the official story line became later - and controversy over it - doesn't come from the "founding" documentation. So, there's a great big hole in the ethical system.
What he's supposed to have said about personal self-defense (turn the other cheek) isn't very useful in the modern world, nor was it very useful in the slums of classical Rome or on the unpatrolled highways of medieval France. Yet the idea - the principle - is compelling enough to have engendered Quakers and unarmed mendicant monastic orders.... not unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King. There is a germ of ethic there that resonates.
Why?

*setting aside the question of the historical Jesus - somebody wrote that story about something that (probably) happened around that time.
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