Sunday, June 8, 2014

A rational ethical theory: first take

I've already mentioned my interest in ethical philosophy.  This is my first attempt to come up with a rational ethical theory:

1. An ethical statement is a statement that something is either right or wrong, good or bad.
2. An ethical system is a series of such statements.

By this definition the Ten Commandments comprise an ethical system.  The question becomes how we validate such a system, that is how do we determine its truth or falsity?  I've always been partial to the utilitarian philosophy: the greatest good for the greatest number.  In Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality, David Wiggins makes some very pointed criticisms of utilitarianism.  For instance, imagine a situation where everyone can live well and find happiness, but at a cost: one person is excluded and lives in an extended hell.  (hmmmm... this sounds strangely familiar.)  Despite the lone sucker's nasty predicament, this would seem to fit the definition.

Apparently in U.S. states with the least difference between rich and poor, people are also better off in general and this points us towards a refinement to the utilitarian principle.  Imagine happiness lying along a distribution with the x-axis being happiness and the y-axis being number of people.  The narrower and further right this distribution lies, the better.  But most important, the further right the left-most non-zero point, the better.  In other words, we need to look at the happiness of the most unhappy person.

At the time I came up with the first part, my solution was much simpler.  I tried to create an ethical system comprised of only one statement that was its own validation system.  Namely: that which increases joy is good.  Joy I decided, was synonymous with good.

The problem here is ambivalence.  We are often drawn in two directions at once.  My first, concrete example, cigarette smoking, works but it's a bit weak.  So at the risk of revealing a bit too much about myself, I was "fortunate" enough to have had a girlfriend who gave me a much stronger example.  A large part of human laws and taboos revolve around sex and perhaps this example will illustrate why.  (Or as Foucault puts it in The History of Sexuality, human sexuality is a particularly dense set of power relations.)  It is interesting, and perhaps a bit ironic, that I first codified the above, rather simple idea of morality while staying at a hostel in Edinburgh after having first gotten together with this woman.  Fast forward to our break-up after about a year-and-a-half of on-again off-again bickering, I found myself staying at the apartment of and even sleeping in the same bed with this woman even as she was dating a new man.  At one point, as she was about to go on a date with this fellow she started getting frisky.  On the one hand, it's hard for me to imagine anything more arousing.  On the other, I really wanted to kill this guy with my bare hands.  I cannot imagine a deeper level of ambivalence.

So this, to me, points to the central aspect of ethics and morality: ambivalence.  Without ambivalence, if we are always certain of the rightness of our actions and their ultimate outcome, then there is no need for ethics.

On a more general level: I would very much like to do good in the world and to leave behind something better for future generations.  I am also ambitious: I would like to be successful and to achieve many great things.  Such achievement is often quite resource-intensive and can damage the environment.  This is the crisis facing our world today.  And it should be obvious to those of us with clearer heads that the elites have mortgaged the future of our grandchildren for wealth and success today.

As the above statement suggests, there is a tendency to preference desire and pleasures.  The concept of ambivalence suggests that all desires are equal: none is higher or lower.  I know I tend to rank them into more base, "animal" desires: food, sex, personal power and prestige, revenge; and higher, more "spiritual desires": searching for truth and knowledge, fighting for justice, helping others, enjoying nature.  Ranking our desires of course is one way of resolving ambivalence.

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