META-ETHICS

 

Just and unjust are ethical terms, and apply to conditions or situations as well as to actions of people.

We speak today more of human rights than of human obligations, but in ethical terms the two are at least somewhat related.

We are more given to demanding what we think are our rights than we are to thinking seriously about what we have a right to demand of anyone else or of society. More will be said about that shortly.

Yet it is undoubtedly true that most people want to be considered good and indeed want to be good, they believe the ought to do the right thing and indeed want to do the right thing, they believe they ought to treat others well and indeed want to treat others well, and they want to be just not unjust to others.

Those who simply have never been given any exposure to ethical questions may be unmoral rather than immoral, although generally life itself provides experiences that should help them appreciate ethical treatment from others, and that in turn may lead them to feel it is desirable to reciprocate and even seek approval from others for ethical treatment of them.

Some of those who have been badly treated in life react strongly and do not share ethical desires but reject the very idea and want revenge on others or on society in general.

But is the belief of many that every human has the potential of responding well to proper (ethical) human relations and becoming a moral person.

What everyone knows is that even if all this is so, people do not all agree on what is ethical, moral, just, good, right, or ought to be done. Nor do we even agree entirely on why one thing or another is proper.

 

My guess is that today most people would justify their ethical judgments in terms of their consequences: ethical behavior produces more results that are good than are bad in terms of non moral values. They have what ethicists call a teleological rather than a deontological justification of ethical behavior. The deontologist says instead that some things are simply right or wrong whatever the consequences might be. And some people take this view of the matter instead. I am not going to take sides on this, but indicate why each might reject the other's viewpoint.

 

The teleologist says that there is no way to justify any ethical rule that should be followed regardless of the outcomes. The results are the only way to judge ethical behavior.

 

To which the deontologist replies first that one often, maybe generally, does not know all the consequences of any action, some of which may in the end be bad, even if initially presumed ethical. And there are some things just so inherently right that they should be our guides, especially when total outcomes cannot be know with certainty.

 


The deontologist has a bit of an edge here because we cannot know all future consequences with certainty, and he can cite an ethical doctrine, one that once influenced many economists, that the deontologist has reason to criticize.

 

Jeremy Bentham, an Englishman who tried to introduce reforms into an easily criticized English prison system, proposed, as the basic ethical principle, doing whatever would bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That sounds like a fine teleological principle. But the deontologist points out correctly that on that basis one could justify the slavery of a minority people by a majority.

 

So maybe others should support the deontological principle that should protect any minority against any maltreatment by anyone, even by a majority in the general interest.

 

But this does not settle the entire question of whether an entire ethic can be based upon similarly "obvious" deontological ethical principles that could hold whatever the consequences we can know about.

 

Nor does it follow that the difficulty here leaves everyone free to decide that whatever he chooses to decide is ethical is as good as any other choice. That has been a very popular view at times for many people. What is ethical is all a matter of tastes. Ethics cannot be reduced to personal tastes about which philosophers have long agreed there is no way to argue. On the contrary here, there is nothing more important to argue about that what is ethical in any given circumstance or in general.

 

The other thing that many students of different cultures are aware of is that different cultures determine what different groups of people consider to be ethical, and that as each culture changes over time, each culture changes their peoples' views as to what is ethical. But that does not mean either that it does not matter at all what is considered ethical just because there are cultural differences as there are individual differences even within a culture. It should be obvious that cultures can be judged too.

 

Some cultures in the past, and even in the present, have considered ethical things that no one not saturated by that culture could possibly consider to be ethical. For example, even in Britain not many generations ago, it was considered proper to hang people in the public square for even minor crimes. And even today female genital mutilation is considered proper and necessary in some places in Africa. It hardly took Gilbert and Sullivan to tell us that the punishment should fit the crime, and girls subject to FGM have committed no crime.

 

We do judge different ethical views, although sometimes we live together better by accepting our differences about such views. Is there no basis on which any of these differences can be reduced or resolved? Philosophers have long agreed for the most part that there is an unbridgeable difference between an "is" statement and an "ought" statement, and so there is. But some "oughts" are so obvious that, when we know the relevant "is", not much controversy remains.


All that is needed is that we accept that life if better than death most of the time, and that good health is better than poor health (and most of the time we know the difference, at least if the difference is substantial).

 

We know that we are free to do whatever we want that does not break a statutory law. But we also' know that we cannot determine the consequences of whatever we do. The nature of reality determines consequences. We do what we choose, but consequences are determined by the nature of reality. We can jump off a tall building without a parachute, and the consequences is that we die when we hit a concrete pavement which was below.

 

No dietitian or anyone else knows all that there is to know about what conduces to health for any one person and what does not. But what we choose to do or to eat will determine whether it makes us healthier or less healthy or does not affect our health. We can't choose both the action and the consequence for our health. If we want to live and to be healthy, we need only to know enough facts, and what we ought to do is pay attention to the consequences and choose wisely. In partial ignorance, we should still base choices on what we think we know, and use some caution when we know our ignorance.

 

Isn't this a teleological ethic that has an objective basis?

 

It is my contention that the health concept is also applicable to all inter‑personal relations and even to whole societies and their interrelations, although our ignorance of these matters is relatively quite primitive. We do know some things, however.

 

We know that if we treat other people as dirt under our feet it will make for extremely poor relations between us. And we know that if instead we treat them as we wish to be treated, the potential for healthy relations between us is immensely improved.

 

We know that it is possible for different ethnic groups to live together in a way that is to the economic and personal benefit of both groups. But either group can take the notion that the other must be driven out of their country, and that can result in much unnecessary suffering, and the good potentials that otherwise existed are then squandered.

 

We know that nations can fear each other so much that they somewhat impoverish themselves with preparations for war against the other and so they each help to create conditions that make war almost inevitable, whereas they could enter into arrangements that guarantee each other the security in which mutual relations would be mutually beneficial.

 

Are these not meaningful conceptions that can be described as involving the health or unhealth of those concerned? And should not the facts, if known, be sufficient for people to choose health? And would not these choices be properly considered to be proper ethical choices? This is an all too brief introduction to the concept that there may be an objective basis for many ethical choices.

 


Now let us consider ethics from another angle. We usually are not very backward about asserting what we think of as our rights that ought to be respected by others and granted by, or at least protected by, society. But we seldom think much about what we have received from others and more broadly from society. We take that for granted, and don't think about what that might imply we should do.

 

But our very life was totally depended upon others even before birth, at birth, and for some time thereafter, because we were utterly helpless and dependent upon not merely ethical behavior of others but upon their sacrificial love for this helpless creature that subsequently became our personhood. Indeed before we became an adult, we were totally dependent upon the operation of the economy to make it possible for our parents to provide us food and clothing and shelter. And we were taught almost everything that we know, in the home, or in an institution of society called a school, or by friends. We did not create ourselves. Whatever we are is the result of enormous contributions to our wellbeing by other individuals and by the society in a broader sense. So we should just gulp this all down and do as we damn please. We owe no one anything. We owe society nothing. Come on‑‑what sort of heels are we? At the very least, we should realize that we could never repay fully those who made these contributions. And more reasonably we should feel some obligation to try to do for others whatever we can like what was done for us.

 

But so far I have ignored the whole concept of our having any rights. What do we have a right, if anything, to expect of society‑‑indeed to demand of society now? We don't think society has any right to tramp on us as if we were nothing. It has helped make us, but that does not give it a right to exploit us for its own gain. We are humans who have every right to be treated as well as other human beings. We have no right to demand to be treated better than others.

 

All we can demand, it seems to me, is the right to have fair and ample opportunities to develop our fine potentialities. Fair means no discrimination against us. Ample means we need a couple of second chances when we mess up sometimes, but not an indefinite number of chances. Fine potentialities does not include the potential to become a sadist. It is not too difficult for people to agree on what they consider to be fine people. They treat others well, not badly. They are good ethical people.

 

I would add that fine people are those who harmonize their creativities with the creativities of others insofar as they can.

 

Now we seem to talking in deontological terms, specifying an ethic that defines fine people, not one dependent upon or justified simply in terms of consequences. Nothing was said here about consequences, although the same ethic might have been defended in those terms too.

 


Finally we must include discussion of what to do about the difficulty of knowing absolutely about the rightness of any decision even when made on ethical

 

grounds. in point of fact, most ethical decisions are made in situations where it is not 100% clear, to any person honest with themself, what is the best ethical decision to make, whatever our ethic may be.

 

Life is simply full of ambiguities.

 

Many of us will weigh things a little differently, and each of us may defend our weighting as the best that we know.

 

But in all honesty with ourselves we should realize that we cannot possible be sure that we are entirely right. We may know what we feel we ought to do, and we may do that. And we hope others will recognize that this is what we really think is best.

 

Others will decide differentlyi but may do so after just as much soul searching as we went through. We should give them the same respect as we want from them.

 

To be sure sometimes many of us do not wrestle much with what we should do. We have committed to ethical principles that, hopefully, were once thought through, and we simply act on those.

 

But whatever our reasoning, we must know that we have no proof that will be persuasive to everyone else that we were right, for what may be proof to us will not be accepted by everyone as proof for them.

 

So, again, it should be clear that we need to respect others differences from us, even when we are sure of ourselves.

 

And no matter what our own basis is for our judgments, we must recognize that many life's situations are so complex that we never can know everything about what all the consequences will be, nor can we ever know that we have exactly the right deontological principle to apply in any given case.

 

We all need some humility, given our ignorance, and therefore we need tolerance of all those who conscientiously judge differently.