Welcome to my course on ethics.
Most moral philosophers seem to think that moral realism is the default view, and that moral anti-realists carry the burden of proof. They think we should cling to moral realism unless forced to abandon it by skeptical arguments. Perhaps this is what motivates Simon Blackburn to devote the first third of his book Ethics: A Very Short Introduction to “Seven threats to ethics.” If he can blunt the force of seven main threats to moral realism, perhaps moral realism will be left standing.
I will leave for later the question of whether the moral realist or the moral anti-realist carries the burden of proof. For now, I want to discuss Blackburn perceived threats to ethics.
Threat 1: The Death of God
For millennia, ethics was tied up in religion. But during the 20th century, God died out in the most educated societies. Did ethics die with him? Some have thought so. Dostoevsky wrote, “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” How can there be a law without a lawgiver?
But wait just a minute. Did religion really give us morality? The Old Testament God is among the most morally despicable beings in all fiction, and the New Testament Jesus is, well, a mixed bag. He asks us to “turn the other cheek” but he is also sectarian (“Don’t minister to non-Jews or Samaritans, but only to Jews“) and racist, referring to non-Jewish Canaanites as “dogs.” And then there’s that whole eternal torture thing.
Of course, there are apologists who will explain this all away, just as Hindu apologists will defend the caste system and Muslim apologists will defend the Koran’s harsh attitudes toward women and infidels. But notice what they are doing. They are taking a step back from religion and assessing its moral worth; throwing out some bits and embracing others. So again we ask: Where does morality come from if it has the power to judge even our religious traditions? Apparently not from those same religious traditions.
So perhaps religion’s relationship to morality is not as a source. Some have argued that religion is a projection of our own moral values, dressed up in epic myths and the garb of transcendental authority.
Besides, religious motivations may actually corrupt ethics. If you really believe you will be punished by an all-knowing policeman for your wicked deeds, or rewarded in heaven with 72 virgins to play with, are you doing good for it’s own sake or because of the results of a cost-benefit analysis?
And, depending on your theology, there’s also the famous Euthyphro dilemma.
Finally, if moral goodness merely means “doing what God commands,” then it seems that morality is not all it was cracked up to be. I could just as well make my own list of commands:
- Seek knowledge before asserting one’s opinions.
- Live in peace with your fellow creatures.
- Seek to heal, not to punish.
…and so on. And I could call these rules “norality.” Now you could protest that I broke one of God’s commands by seeking to rehabilitate a criminal rather than punish him. You could say, “That’s not moral!” And I would say, “So? It’s noral. And I think being noral is better than being moral. Why is your list better than mine?” And you might reply, “Because it’s God’s!” And I would say it’s not the source of a normative system that matters, but it’s quality and effect.
So it seems the death of God need not mean the death of morality. Or, if we define “morality” in terms of the ignorant, intolerant, barbaric moral precepts taught by the world’s major religions, then perhaps the death of “morality” is something to be cheered.
Threat 2: Relativism
If there is no Lawgiver to give us morality, perhaps we must make it up ourselves. The moral certitude of 19th century Europe’s colonial rape of other peoples made us wary of foisting our moral opinions onto others. Relativism is pluralistic and non-judgmental. Each culture or group has it’s own morality. What is right is what is right for them.
So the request of relativism is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But what if the Romans do some very nasty things? What about societies that enforce slavery, female genital mutilation, and so on? Of course we can thump the table and say, “No! It’s wrong to gouge out genitals of young girls! It’s just plain fucking wrong, you sick bastards!” But if the relativist is right, we are doing no more than to thump the table, whatever our claims about absolute “wrongness.”
Some might claim there really are no relativists. When I express my opinion that capitalism is evil, the relativist may reply “Sure, if that works for you – great!” But then when it comes to an issue he really cares about – say, abortion or female genital mutilation – then you will find him preaching the evils of female genital mutilation. But this is not decisive against the relativist, for if you tie him down and ask him if he thinks female genital mutilation is really wrong, even for those who support, they will admit it is not; that he is just using strong words to persuade as many people to his own opinion as he can.
If moral relativism is taken to be the position that “different people and different cultures have different moral opinions,” then relativism is trivially true. But is relativism all there is to ethics? If so, most people would call that moral nihilism – the abandonment of “real” morality that is binding for everyone, regardless of opinion. If there is something more to morality, it’s up to the moral realists to show what it is.
Threat 3: Egoism
In his section on egoism, Blackburn seems to confuse psychological egoism – the thesis that people always act to further their own interests – with ethical egoism, the thesis that people ought only to act in their own interest. Even if psychological egoism is true, why would this be a threat to ethics?
But perhaps Blackburn is not confused. For if psychological egoism is true, then people cannot do anything but pursue their own interests. And that would mean it is silly to say they ought to care for others’ interests, for ought implies can. You can’t say someone ought to do something it is impossible for them to do.
So let us examine the thesis of psychological egoism. Do people only act to further their own interests?
No. People often sacrifice their own interests for others. They may even sacrifice their own interests for ignoble reasons, as in the case of “a man who runs upon certain ruin in order to avenge himself for an insult. Friends with his interest at heart might try to dissuade him, but fail. What this man may need to do is to act more out of self-interest, so that anticipating his ruin checks his desire for revenge.”
Suppose two people give to a charity. Suppose it comes out that the charity is corrupt, and [donations] do not go to the starving poor but to the directors. And suppose that on receiving this news the ﬁrst person is irritated and angry, not so much at the directors of the charity, but at the person bringing the news (‘Why bring this up? Just let me be’); whereas the second person is indignant at the directors themselves. Then we can reasonably suggest that the ﬁrst person prized his own peace of mind or reputation for generosity more than he cared about the starving poor; whereas the second has a more genuine concern for what goes on in the world, not for whether he is comfortable or how he stands in the eyes of others.
So psychological egoism is false. Might it still be the case that ethical egoism is true? There are, perhaps surprisingly, several arguments in its favor:
- The person most familiar with your wants and needs is yourself. And the person in the best position to pursue those wants and needs is yourself. If we set out to be our “brother’s keeper,” we would often bungle the job.
- Shouldn’t we mind our own business, and let others mind theirs?
- Giving someone charity degrades him. It says he is unable to look out for himself.
- Our commonly-accepted moral duties, from keeping promises to doing no harm, are justified by self-interest, anyway.
Of course, most of us would object that:
- Egoism provides no basis for the resolution of conflicting interests.
- Egoism is merely prejudice and bigotry.
- Whatever egoism is, it cannot be called “morality,” for all moral systems proclaim a concern for the other.
Threat 4: Evolutionary Theory
Evolutionary theory is often thought to undermine ethics, but this is based on a confusion.
The confusion is that if we can show why a moral urge like mother-love evolved, then mother-love is unmasked as a conspiracy of our selfish genes, so mother-love is not “real.” But this is absurd. The premise is “This is why mother-love exists” and the conclusion is “Therefore, mother-love doesn’t exist.” Whatever the cause of mother-love, it would be silly for a child to yell, “But mommy, you only care about the propagation of your genes!” No, mommy really cares about her child, even if it’s the case that she was programmed that way by evolution.
Threat 5: Determinism
Determinism is also thought to undermine ethics. If there is no free will, if everything we do is a product of genes and environment, then how can we be held morally responsible for anything? If everything is determined, then prohibitions against things we are fated to do are as pointless as prohibitions against growing hair or desiring sex.
But wait a minute. Maybe prohibitions are not so pointless, even without free will. After all, evolution programmed us to be input-responsive. We respond to the moral climate. If dishonesty is condemned by our culture, we are less likely to be dishonest. If hard work is praised, we are more likely to work hard. And the practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions will influence them to act in accordance with the standards we set.
Threat 6: Unreasonable Demands
One man’s response to a robust theory of morality may be, “That’s all well and good but is it practical?” Think of Christian ethics or any other ethical system that is so demanding as to seem impossible. We might reply, “Well if that’s what morality demands, then I’m opting out.”
Another response is to say that “Morality is good for some people, but not everyone has the luxury.” People need to have jobs. And some of them have to work at a fast food chain that buys meat from horrifyingly immoral slaughterhouses.
Despite this, it might be the case that some moral theory or other is true, but it will not be a very important moral theory for the human race if nobody can follow it.
That is the worry of morality’s unreasonable demands.
Threat 7: False Consciousness
Consider the feminist critique of a man’s offer to hold the door for her. She takes offense at this, saying it demeans women. She need not mean that the man himself intends to demean women. She may only mean that the man is acting – unconsciously – as part of a cultural institution that demeans women.
Now consider the institution of ‘Ethics.’ The worry is that Ethics is a system whose function is other than it seems:
A feminist might see it as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. A Marxist can see it as an instrument of class oppression. A Nietzschean may see it as a lie with which the feeble and timid console themselves for their inability to seize life as it should be seized. A modern French philosopher, such as Michel Foucault, can see it as a diffuse exercise of power and control.
…The passion with which the rich defend the free market can invite the raised eyebrow. A morality with or without the religious ﬁg leaf we met earlier, that gives us the right to their land, or the right to kill them for not having the same rituals as us, invites a similar diagnosis.
But, Blackburn writes:
Although we may well accept examples of this kind of critique, I don’t think it could possibly be generalized to embrace all of ethics. The reason is implicit in what we have already said: for human beings, there is no living without standards of living. This means that ethics is not Ethics: it is not an ‘institution’ or organization with sinister hidden purposes that might be better unmasked. It is not the creature of some concealed conspiracy by ‘them’: Society, or The System, or The Patriarchy. There are indeed institutions, such as the Church or State, that may seek to control our standards, and their nature and function may need to be queried. But that will mean at most a different ethic. It does not and cannot introduce the end of ethics.
The purpose of covering Blackburns “threats to ethics” has not been to cover these issues comprehensively or to arrive at answers (though we will attempt both, later). Rather, my purpose has been to expose us to ethical thought in general.