Friday, July 22, 2005


So, some friends and I were talking the other day about ethics. There was (as might be expected) some disagreement over whether or not there exists an absolute standard of right and wrong. I don't believe that there is. Its not that I buy into the cultural differences argument (that right and wrong are simply a matter of culture) or that I buy into a totally hedonist perspective. Quite the opposite. I believe that a hedonistic life is wasteful and limited. But I also think that living according to some arbitrary code handed down to us by religion or our parents or society in general is absurd. For an ethical code to have real power and force, it must be rationally grounded. That is, it must make sense and take into account all possibilities. That's why I can't buy into an absolute ethical code. I mean, for every action that you tell me is wrong, I can come up with a situation where it's not so clear what the right action is. Absolutes just don't allow for such possibilities. Absolute moral codes say that no matter what it is absolutely wrong for you to commit action x. This approach unfairly simplifies extremely complex situations. For example, pretty much everyone agrees that murder is wrong. Yet in cases of war, heinous crime, and euthanasia it becomes less clear. The same holds for most other actions as well. The perfect ethical system would be one that takes all of these issues into account. That, however, proves mightily difficult. Unless one places the burden of ethical action on the individual and not the society or the deity worshipped. That is exactly what the golden rule (or Kant's categorical imperitive) do. The burden of judgement is placed squarely on the shoulder's of the individual. If the actor knows that his actions will have consequence based on the nature and degree of his action, then he will keep his own actions in line based on his own code of what is allowable. That is, if the universe is set up such that doing unto others results (eventually) in that being done unto you, then ethical balance is maintained. There is no need for any judgement day or any such balderdash. Free will of the individual is maintained, as is the divine balance. It is my position that any deity worth its salt would set up its universe exactly in this manner. That way it doesn't need to impose some complicated set of rules or restrictions on its creation. Simply make the system inherently balanced. Positive action yields positive reward. Negative action yields negative reward. Simple. The person acting is therefore judge, jury, prosecution, and defense. Rational free agents who understand this system would therefore out of their own free will realize which actions are beneficial and which are not. There is no need for any complex basis or divine basis of right action. The human mind and will are sufficient to handle the task. This subjective view of ethics doesn't sit well with some folks, however. They apparently aren't comfortable making well-informed decisions for themselves. They maintain that God laid down the law in such and such manner and that we will burn in hell for not following it perfectly. But not even they can agree on exactly what that law is. Some christians think that homosexuality is wrong, others do not. Some find biblical support for their position that women should be subservient to their husbands, others do not. Some muslims feel that terrorizing innocent civilians in the name of Allah is wrong, while others do not. In this ever-changing world, it is increasingly difficult to nail down the tried and true ethics of society. For our continued growth, it is necessary that we have a system in which the agent, not the society, is responsible for ethical judgement. Therefore, I beg you, see the beauty that is already inherent in the system, and seek to synchronize your choices with it.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger Codesuidae said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

For a talented and charismatic sociopath, an ideal ethical code would likely be quite different from what an awkward but highly empathetic person would think ideal.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Kyle Vernon said...

No, the ideal code would be one in which the individual was solely held responsible for his/her own actions in exact accord with the action. The ideal is ideal from the largest perspective. That is, what makes something ideal is that it is the best option after everything has been taken into account. Therefore, the ideal moral code for person x would be the same as for person y. That's the problem with dealing in universals-- it has to fit everyone/thing. The only position that I have found that successfully does this for ethics is a morality based on the golden rule.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Codesuidae said...

I disagree in that the 'largest perspective' is that of the individual. There is no 'ideal' system of ethics, because what is 'ideal' is a value judgement that only an individual can make, and all individuals have different criteria for making such a judgment.

If everyone valued the same things in the same way then it is likely that everyone's ethical system would converge, but this is not likely to happen.

This is why I chose the example of a sociopath. He does not care in the least how other people feel, he does not care if his actions hurt them. His actions are calculated only to further his own agenda. He can intellectually recognize that in response to his actions others may do things that confound his plans, but he does not feel guilt at violations of the golden rule.

Obviously the sociopath is an exception to the way most of humanity works, but the case serves as an example of why there is no ideal ethical code.

I see each consiousness as an isolated island with its own internal dynamics. Each may or may not value its perception of the welfare of others and any number of other morally relevant issues. Other beings may have wildly differing goals and values, resulting in different ethical systems.

What it boils down to is that for something to be 'ideal', it has to have been judged against a pupose or goal. Since intentional beings can have conflicting goals and judgement criteria, there can be no common ideal.

As an example, if entity A has but one goal, to live in harmony with all alther entities, and entity B has only the goal of eliminating all other entities, it is clear that they cannot share an ethical system.
Entity A can certainly reason that entity B is wrong, but entity B can just as easily argue that A is wrong.

Such is the nature of moral relativism. Perhaps you can explain why moral relativism does not or can not fit into a pantheistic worldview?


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