Chapter 18. MORE TOPICS IN DEONTOLOGY
How is ethics actually built up in people’s minds, and how is it to be justified epistemologically? My proposed answer to these questions is as follows.
We all have our own ‘intuitions’ of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, kind and unkind, etc. Some of these are primary – arbitrary valuations of the free agent. Others are basically emotional, sentimental or sensual. Others are derived from conceptual insights, based on accumulated ideas and values of which we may be more or less conscious, and which we may have more or less justified. At this stage, we need only consider them all as notions, as mere phenomena, at their face value – without regard as to their sources, structure, consistency or validity.
Taken one by one, in isolation from other such valuation experiences and from knowledge as a whole, these intuitions may, of course, be real or illusory. They are not necessarily ‘correct’ or ‘justified’ just by virtue of their occurrence, nor of course automatically invalidated by the fact that they as yet have not been established as true and valid. This is analogous to my treatment of appearances in general as neutral, before we start classifying them as realities or illusions.
Thus, initially, these intuitions of value or disvalue are acknowledged to have some small credibility just by virtue of appearing, but not enough of it to decide whether they are ultimately reliable or not. But, through an inductive procedure that treats these individual insights of right and wrong as hypothetical raw data, and then faces them off with all other data, comparing and contrasting these value-insights to each other, and with the wider context of non-evaluative knowledge, we manage to gradually build up a consistent structure that includes some of them and excludes others.
From this ordering process, emerge the modalities of ethical propositions (must, may and may not, cannot). Using syllogistic and factorial techniques similar to those used with non-ethical propositions, ethical insights are statistically ordered, collectively yielding ethical systems. By ‘statistical’, here, I mean ‘for all, most, some, few, no other valuations (as the case may be), this one is compatible or incompatible, implied or not-implied’. Thus, I suggest, ethical logic is constructed in much the same way as logic in general is.
Note that ethical propositions do not only have categorical form, like “X must do Y”. Some have conditional form, like “if Z occurs, X must do Y – but if Z does not occur, X need not do Y”. The former are applicable under general conditions, whereas the latter under particular conditions; but apart from that difference, their force of “imperativeness” is the same.
My theory is, therefore, similarly intuitionist. This is not, however, a relativistic position, at all. Some ethics are more reliable than others. What distinguishes the ethical systems of different people at different times is, simply, the clarity and amount of ethical and non-ethical intuitions that have been taken into account, and the logical rigor with which each of us orders this raw data into a consistent whole. People with confused minds are drawn hither and thither by their feelings and notions, and fail to evolve a trustworthy ethic. Others are more careful, and produce a sounder end product.
Thus, the right-wrong or good-bad experiences at the ground of ethics are technically akin to the true-false or correct-incorrect experiences at the ground of non-ethical knowledge. The procedure for judging them is the same: we grant them some ab initio credibility, but reserve our final judgment till further research has confirmed them in all respects (until and unless new evidence or arguments emerge to the contrary). Thus, in effect, value-intuitions are treated as empirical data; this gives them some weight, but does not in itself constitute full justification, which requires a longer and more holistic process of review.
As raw data, ethical intuitions are not only comparable to sensible qualities like colors or feelings, but also to logical insights. By this, I suggest that, given the very same level of intelligence and information, two people in similar circumstances would theoretically have the same ethical intuitions. Granting this bold assumption, we acknowledge a certain ‘objectivity’ to ethical judgment. Of course, this assumption cannot be definitely proved by experiment, since in practice we cannot hope to make two people – or even the same person at different times – sufficiently the same.
This hypothesis allows us to develop ethical concepts from the ethical notions, in the same way as in general discourse the logical modalities are constructed from apparent logical insights of identity, contradiction, compatibility or implication – by recourse to factorial analysis and factor selection. We revert to adductive methods – trial and error, the elimination of doubtful data, till what we are left with seems reasonably well tested and confirmed.
The leftover ethical judgments are then logically ordered relative to each other, as goals and means, so that the list of final ends is reduced to a minimum, which implicitly contains all subsidiary values. This is the teleological stage of the proceedings. These final ends constitute the ‘standards of value’ for the particular subject (man or woman) who has concluded them.
Of course, these standards are to some extent in constant flux, changing with new life experiences, reflections, incoming information, and under the influence of other people. Some aspects of people’s value systems remain firmly anchored in them, to the degree that they personally identify with them. Some values diminish or lose their importance in time; others acquire or increase in importance later on. Note well that we are speaking here of seeming values, i.e. of the appearance of value to some particular person at some particular time.
There may thus be divergences of opinion among people’s values, even though they live in the same milieu. Inversely, many people in a community or historical period may have the same values, so that these common values appear to them immutable and objective.
Thus, ethical logic, like the logic of non-ethical knowledge, should be viewed as an inductive enterprise. It is not a deductive system, wherein we are at the outset given, in one way or another, a set of “top moral principles” from which all moral judgments are syllogistically inferred, as many moral philosophers propose. Ethics is not casuistry, based on more or less agreed, arbitrary “axioms” (so-called). Rather, we gradually evolve standards of value over time: they are our short list of most impressive and important looking moral insights.
These norms (or “highest goods”) may, once arrived at, be used in the way of axioms, but they remain open to review and verification at all times, in recognition of the fact that they were originally products of induction. Although many of us tend to enshrine certain norms, and insist on their eternity, such rigidity is neither justified nor necessary. A norm carries more conviction if it is felt sufficiently confident to face and withstand challenges, than if we block all reconsideration.
Nevertheless, some norms are logically very secure, if not immovable. This refers to the norms that fit the general teleological argument: “whatever your particular values, you must still refer to so and so (the secure norm) as a supreme value, because it is a precondition to the pursuit of any values whatsoever”. We can in this way argue that life, body, cognitive faculties, awareness, volitional faculties, liberty, health, sanity, and so forth, are all preconditions that any value system we propose has to accept.
Although, note well, such basic values do not by themselves make possible an answer to all ethical questions – they nevertheless provide a framework for all other values.
This is comparable to the role played by the laws of thought, and indeed by logic in general, within knowledge. These top principles or axioms are self-evident, because they are implied even by propositions that attempt to deny them. Nevertheless, it does not follow that logic by itself allows us to deduce the world without reliance on experience. We must still largely depend on experience. Logic just helps us to make sense of that experience.
In the domain of values, some values act as sine qua non conditions for all other values. Since all values are to some extent relative to these values, they may be considered as effectively absolute values. If we can argue of some value Y that “whether you value X or you value notX, you must still pursue or retain Y and/or avoid or remove notY” – Y is established as such a precondition. Note that X and notX are presumed values, and not merely indifferent objects. This is essentially dilemmatic argument, similar to that used in general logic to establish necessary propositions.
It is an aspect of teleological reasoning, which (as already said) investigates ways and means to intuited values, in the light of natural and artificial tools and obstacles available. Teleological reasoning refers to the natural and extensional modes of modality, rather than to the logical mode. It makes consistency checks between our different goals, and places them in hierarchies and priorities. It seeks out the most effective means to these goals, considering all surrounding conditions and time factors. The use of such reasoning should not be taken to imply an essentially utilitarian or epicurean view of value systems.
People often declare “happiness”, or some particular version of it, as their ultimate goal. But most people would find it difficult to say just what they mean by happiness – is it fulfillment of one’s major goals, a positive emotion or a maximum of pleasures? Paradoxically, Buddhism suggests, the active pursuit of happiness is not likely to result in happiness. In any case, such “eudemonism” is not a sine qua non of all values, and so not an absolute value. That is, we can in fact live without happiness, and most of us do. Nevertheless, we would naturally prefer to feel good than feel bad; and, within limits, this is often possible if one lives virtuously. Dignity and decency beget a measure of contentment.
Note lastly this important remark. Though we have value intuitions, and however these intuitions arise, we are never forced to act in accord with them. We (men and women) remain at all times free agents, who are responsible for their final choices. Even when we develop a complex ethical system, we remain free to act or not act in accord with our beliefs. We may ignore them or even act against them. Our beliefs have causal power as influences, but no more. This is freedom of the will, without which no ethic can be claimed.
Ethics and law systems can, at least partially, be built on certain logical considerations.
People often say “don’t be so judgmental”, and “live and let live!” – or they may sneer , implying contempt for such idiocy. This is presented as an argument against ethical distinctions, an attempt to generally invalidate ethics by claiming all moral judgment to be relative and uncertain. However, the proponents of this thesis fail to realize that it is logically inconsistent, since it is itself composed of judgments.
To say: “don’t judge” or “do let live”, or otherwise imply it is wrong to judge, is to propose the paradoxical ethical proposition “one should not make ethical propositions” – which is self-contradictory. It logically follows that the opposite position is true, namely that “it is indeed permissible to make ethical propositions”.
In this way, we have definitely proved, as logically self-evident, the existence and demonstrability of some ethical propositions. We have established an axiom for deontology. Those who say “be tolerant” (towards just anything) are effectively making an uncompromising, intolerant statement – therefore, they cannot be right, by their own terms.
Such arguments are not rhetorical tricks – they clarify the way things are, by virtue of our having consciousness and volition, and being able to engage in discourse and argument. Concepts of ethical moment naturally evolve from our experience of the world and interaction with it. They are not arbitrary constructs, which can be manipulated at will. Once evolved, they have a logic – of which we must be aware and which we must respect.
Many moral judgments, and indeed many laws, are based on the principle of reciprocity: “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you”. This is an ethical formula most people would intuitively accept, even if they might disagree as to what they or others would or wouldn’t want done to them.
When a murderer kills, or tries to kill, he tacitly, by the implication of his act, claims the right to kill. Since he is, in fact, no different from his human victim, he thereby grants to others the right to kill him, at least in self-defense, if not punitively. He cannot consistently argue that he has the right to kill others, but others do not have the right to kill him.
Ethics takes every claim as a universal principle, unless good arguments can be adduced to particularize it. One cannot exempt oneself from the imperatives one gives others, or permit oneself what one has prohibited to others, unless some very convincing distinction between self and others is offered (for example, that the others belong to a different species). It is reasonable to assume that particular moral claims derive from general principles.
This is one application of the reciprocity principle, on the basis of which we grant the state the right to execute murderers, to keep the peace. Some people argue that the death sentence is not necessary or useful, and many countries have abolished this extreme penalty, but that is not my concern here. I am not arguing that issue one way or the other, but am only trying to clarify our reasoning with regard to reciprocity.
Note, in any case, that society’s killing of the murderer is very different from the murderer’s killing of some innocent victim. The murderer has initiated violence; the state merely retaliates. When society avenges the victim and punishes the culprit, protecting society from further injury, there is no basis for further retaliation against the executioner or those who appointed him. All that, of course, is said on the theoretical assumption that there has been due process, under just laws, beyond a reasonable doubt, and so forth. In practice, these caveats are admittedly often inadequately respected.
A similar argument can be constructed with regard to theft. When a thief steals, he thereby ignores or denies the existence of private property, and therefore cannot be indignant if others (in practice through the state) impound his property or fine him. If he is indigent, he may be imprisoned on the argument that this deprives him of the liberty to enrich himself, and incidentally, prevents him from further theft. Here again, justice is served through the logic of reciprocation.
We often argue: “if everyone did this (or didn’t do that), everything would be fantastic (or everything would be terrible)”, but such general arguments are idealistic, since in practice it is improbable if not impossible that literally everyone will do (or not do) some one thing in concert; there are always recalcitrants!
A person could well argue that he is willing to live in a world where everyone can do as they please: he is willing to take the risk involved. We cannot argue against such an anarchist that he too might get hurt, since he is gambling he won’t. Our argument is circular and impractical.
It follows that such a person will not be convinced by any rational arguments not to kill or steal, but must be overpowered by society into compliance with the law. The reciprocity principle as here used is not abstract ethics, but a justification for concrete force.
It should be stressed, in this context, that many crimes have not only certain direct and obvious effects on a particular victim, but also much wider and more insidious consequences on society as a whole. Every crime – insofar as people are victims to it, witness it or hear about it – causes people to lose some of their natural trust in other people.
When a murderer kills, people begin to fear someone might kill them. When a thief steals, people have to hide their money and lock their doors. When a rapist rapes, women begin to fear men in general. When a schoolteacher abuses a pupil, all educators become suspect. And so forth, with every criminal act – and this principle is all the more true nowadays, when the media give wide and loud coverage to the more heinous crimes.
This, then, is the further crime of every criminal – he decreases people’s trust in each other. Suspicion grows, and everyone’s freedom is curtailed. ‘Potential victims’ (i.e. anyone in any way resembling past victims of the crime concerned) must take protective measures, and ‘potential criminals’ (i.e. anyone with any resemblance, however remote, to actual criminals) must limit their movements. Society thus loses its cohesion, and everyone becomes a little less happy. In some cases, relations between people become aggressive.
Some of the reasoning involved in this distancing between people is, of course, logically unjustified. If a news bulletin is about a husband killing his wife for her money, other rich wives may come to imagine that their own husband could well do the same. If the news is that a boss raped his secretary, many secretaries will the next day look at their bosses with a bit of concern. The categories ‘husband’ and ‘rich wife’, or ‘boss’ and ‘secretary’, are enough to generate some analogy, and sow a doubt, even if the psychological and other conditions involved are totally different.
Statistics are sometimes read, or misread, in ways that reinforce such reasoning. If a number thieves are foreigners, all foreign-looking people become ‘probable’ thieves in people’s eyes, even if the proportion of thieves among foreigners is less than that among locals; the actual degree of probability involved becomes irrelevant in people’s minds. (For example: suppose 20% of population are foreigners and 10% of population are thieves, it may be that only 5% of foreigners are thieves, in which case 11.25% of locals are thieves!)
People also wrongly convert propositions, thinking that “all X are Y” implies “all Y are X”. For example, ‘all rapists are men’ becomes ‘every man I meet could be a rapist’ in some women’s minds, and they behave as if he is so. Absurd it might be, but people are human.
Society is thus a collective victim of every crime, and it is proper for the state (as the instrument of society) to vigorously intervene, and prevent, repress and punish crime.
In all such negative situations, the principle of reciprocity is used to hinder, limit or repair the damage caused to other people or society as a whole by some individuals or groups. It should be stressed, however, that in most situations, the principle of reciprocity plays a much gentler role in people’s minds, encouraging mutual respect and trust. This occurs when the persons concerned reflect before committing a wrongdoing, thinking: “I would not like that done to me, so I will not do it to others” or “I shall not behave in this way, so as not to spoil our world even more” or the like.
Some people do go one step further, and apply a positive version of the reciprocity principle, thinking: “if I was in this difficult situation, I would hope or expect others to come to my aid, therefore I will offer my help”. This is an admirable attitude. Of course, those to whom help is offered may not want help, or not that particular kind of help, or at least not the way it is offered. One cannot stuff it down their throat. For this reason, the positive version of the principle is less easy to formulate: the recipient(s) of our attentions must be a willing party to the transaction. Still, it often does come into play, promoting tolerance, friendship and even love. This, in turn, increases social bonds and makes everyone’s life that much easier.
Ethics naturally arises first of all within the individual, in the sense that he or she may have certain imperatives, inhibitions or liberties. Ethics as a social phenomenon presumably arose in the family, as the head of household (on the basis of his or her personal ethic) gave advice or orders and was obeyed (whether out of love or fear). More broadly, the surrounding community would have traditions and rules to be respected, as well as advice or orders from the leadership, whoever that included, to maintain social bonds. Eventually, the local shaman or other religious figure gave instructions, in the name of the deity or deities of the group. As these informal social ethics became more formal institutions, the concept of law emerged.
What I wish to discuss here is the distinction between ethical principle and legality, so as to stress that making something legal doesn’t make it moral; making something illegal doesn’t make it immoral.
A distinction that people seem to often find confusing is that between ethical and political law. People generally do understand that the laws currently on a nation’s statute books (here referred to as ‘political’ laws, meaning that they are enacted and enforced by the body politic, though they may concern any matter) are not necessarily moral in content; but they also generally consider that what such laws allow is ultimately permissible and what they forbid is best avoided.
For this reason, society may in some cases interdict practices that its proponents claim harmless, being “private acts between consenting adults” – on the basis that such acts nevertheless indirectly affect people who are not directly a party to them. For example, homosexuality can reasonably be made illegal on the grounds that making it legal gives some youths the impression that it is moral, causing such behavior to spread, to the consternation and against the will of a great many citizens (including very many parents), so that it is no longer a private affair but an issue of public policy.
Let us briefly consider the concepts involved. Ideally, an absolute ethics would be derived from wise and informed consideration of human nature and of man’s place in the world. Armed with such general moral guidelines, each well-meaning human being would in principle be able to know right from wrong in each particular situation facing him or her, and would exercise will accordingly. There would be no need for laws enforced by society.
Practically, such a utopian scenario can only lead to social havoc. Even in a society filled with good will, people have different ideas as to what is right or wrong, and absolute proofs are hard to find. All the more so, since humans have free will, and many of them – under various influences – often opt for what they (themselves) consider bad, rather than (as logic would dictate) do the good. Conflicts thus inevitably arise, which are ultimately to the disadvantage of all. For these reasons, it is generally agreed that some minimal common standards have to be conventionally imposed by the majority or an empowered minority.
We accordingly constitute states, governments, legislatures, judiciaries and police forces, which together make and enforce laws. A guiding principle in enacting and enforcing such laws would be that “the rights of one person end where those of other people begin”. Another useful adage is “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”. But clearly, such statements do not provide us with an exact science. It is not always easy to decide what needs legislating and what is best left alone. Political science is a changing, empirical discipline.
In this corrected perspective, ethical law covers all human action, while political law covers only some of it. The former is ideally universal; but only a fraction or subset of it is politically enacted and enforced, the rest being the responsibility of the individual to discover or at least practice.
The scope of such political law is vast, but not as vast as the scope of moral law. It includes criminal law (against murder, theft, etc.), civil law (about marriage, inheritance, etc.), commercial law (concerning property, contracts, etc.), and indeed any legal issue that may arise in the interactions between human beings.
Theoretically, at least, the purpose of such laws is to ensure social peace, the common weal, personal security, justice, and so forth – although in practice, as everyone knows, they are often instruments of exploitation and unjust. In principle, what makes them stand out from the mass of ethical laws is the need to reduce frictions between people to a reasonable minimum. Historically, such minimalism has not always been accepted; some societies have been totalitarian, attempting to control almost everything.
In practice, for epistemological reasons already stated, the domains of ethics and political law are bound to somewhat drift apart, so that although the two domains intersect to some extent, the political domain is not wholly contained within the ethical domain, but partly falls outside it. Laws enacted by society, whether by democratic means or otherwise, may differ from the laws suggested by personal conscience or by reasoned study and debate by ethical philosophers.
Such divergence is in some cases reasonable; but it is often irrational. In a non-democratic system of government, the prejudices of the governing few are imposed on the majority, without room for argument. In a democracy, where in principle rational argument is the rule, pressure groups occasionally manage to format laws that accord with their aberrant views simply by virtue of the power of their numbers or through other considerations that force politicians to submit to their will. In recent decades, many activities traditionally judged as immoral have been declared legal in Western countries.
Now, let me say that this is not a political tract; I do not expect anything I say or do is likely to stem that unfortunate tide. My philosophy of history is very skeptical. In each generation, some faulty belief held by large segments of the public comes to the fore and gains ascendancy, until it is brought to its natural absurd conclusion, like a sore spot bursting and releasing its pus, and disaster strikes, so that enough people learn to avoid that particular folly thenceforth.
Nazism and Communism were typical examples: they arrived on the scene of history to the sound of popular cheers, and left in the midst of countless tears. People in Europe learned certain lessons, about the active use of brute force, about persecution of racial minorities, about national and class hatreds, and so forth; they changed their ways somewhat thereafter. They might have saved themselves the trouble and the pain, if they had resorted to reason, instead of yielding to their lowest emotions.
Remember that Hitler was democratically elected (more or less). Realistically, democracy is without doubt the best and fairest system of government available to us; but as we all know, it is not perfect. The fact that certain legislation is passed is not proof of popular support, let alone right. Most laws are based on indirect democracy; the legislators and judges involved in the matter may well be cowardly, amoral or personally compromised. If referenda were used, the results might well have been very different. But even in the case of laws established by direct democracy, numbers of votes do not determine what is right or wrong.
From this reflection it follows that the fact that some laws on the statute books socially-politically prescribe, allow or forbid some behavior pattern, does not mean that the behavior pattern in question is ethically-morally prescribed, allowed or forbidden, respectively. What society happens to have favored (or forbidden) may nevertheless, from the point of view of ethics, be wrong (or right, respectively). The arguments involved may have been fallacious or based on inadequate information.
‘Legal’ and ‘moral’ must be understood to be distinct, separate categories, although conceptually they are partly related (as we have explicated). Making something legal doesn’t make it moral; making something illegal doesn’t make it immoral. Youths should especially be made aware of this important distinction.
The individual may not reasonably regard the existence of certain legal tendencies in the statute books as indicative of ethical truth, because legislation is not exclusively based on rational reflection, but depends on social forces. The legislator may be faulted for misguiding fellow citizens, but these remain responsible for their own acts.
individual is still required to think for himself or herself, and to at least
consider the ethical advice of the wise doctrines that humanity has produced.
The existence of political freedoms or limits does not exempt an individual from
moral responsibility for his or her choices. Legislation is not a substitute for
conscience, or a just alibi for moral abdication. Although
a legal threat or protection can mitigate moral responsibility, it does not
Although a legal threat or protection can mitigate moral responsibility, it does not absolve.
From an ethical point of view, laws are just one influential factor among others in behavior, which in certain cases it may be wise to volitionally dismiss or oppose.
 See Future Logic, chapter 2.
 Non-ethical propositions have been labeled ‘alethic’. Regarding ‘factorial’ analysis, see Future Logic, Part VI.
 In the Jewish tradition, this adage is first found in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), in the form “what you hate, do not do to your friend”, as an interpretation by the sage Hillel of the Torah commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Note that the form he gives it is negative; it is a minimalist call to forbear from causing harm, rather than an injunction to do good (which is covered more specifically through many other commandments). In the Buddhist tradition, it is similarly taught that we will act humanely towards others if we remember that all sentient beings have, like ourselves, a natural desire to be happy and not suffer. This, too, is an appeal to reciprocity.
 Note well the differences between this principle, and Kant’s famous maxim. I am not stating that the mere possibility of generalization establishes ethical rules; and I am making allowance for the particularization of such rules.
 Even if the practitioners did nothing to promote their practice, their mere negative influence on society would be sufficient reason to prohibit it; how much more so, if they make efforts to propagate it.
 I generally avoid getting into political comment or debate in my writings, because my philosophical aims are at a deeper level of epistemology and ontology. Controversy is bound to alienate some readers, who might consider some of my views as either too ‘liberal’ or too ‘conservative’.
 All the more, the support of major media means nothing.