Tag Archive: ethics

The right way is always determined

When I speak of the rigidity of tribalism I do not mean that no changes can occur in the tribal ways of life. I mean rather that the comparatively infrequent changes have the character of religious conversions or revulsions, or of the intro­duction of new magical taboos. They are not based upon a rational attempt to improve social conditions. Apart from such changes—which are rare—taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life. They do not leave many loop-holes. There are few problems in this form of life, and nothing really equivalent to moral problems. I do not mean to say that a member of a tribe does not sometimes need much heroism and endurance in order to act in accordance with the taboos. What I mean is that he will rarely find himself in the position of doubting how he ought to act. The right way is always determined, though difficulties must be overcome in following it. It is determined by taboos, by magical tribal institutions which can never become objects of critical consideration. [ch. 10, 188-9]

Freedom: making decisions for which we are responsible

Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral. It is we who impose our standards upon nature, and who in this way introduce morals into the natural world, in spite of the fact that we are part of this world. We are products of nature, but nature has made us together with our power of altering the world, of foreseeing and of planning for the future, and of making far-reaching decisions for which we are morally responsible. Yet respon­sibility, decisions, enter the world of nature only with us. [ch. 5, 67]

Being confronted with personal decisions

In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society. [ch. 10, 190]

Nagel’s obviously objective values

Harris has identified a real problem, rooted in the idea that facts are objective and values are subjective.

Harris rejects this facile opposition in the only way it can be rejected—by pointing to evaluative truths so obvious that they need no defense. For example, a world in which everyone was maximally miserable would be worse than a world in which everyone was happy, and it would be wrong to try to move us toward the first world and away from the second. This is not true by definition, but it is obvious, just as it is obvious that elephants are larger than mice. If someone denied the truth of either of those propositions, we would have no reason to take him seriously.

These cases show that the idea of truth applies to values as much as it does to facts—but as with facts, the idea is not limited to obvious cases. There are many questions of value whose answer is not obvious, and about which people disagree, but that does not mean that they do not have a correct answer. As Harris points out, exactly the same can be said of historical and scientific questions: one should not confuse truth with what is known, or agreed on by everyone.

Decisions cannot be derived from facts

It is important for the understanding of this attitude to realize that these decisions can never be derived from facts (or from statements of facts), although they pertain to facts. The decision, for instance, to oppose slavery does not depend upon the fact that all men are born free and equal, and that no man is born in chains. For even if all were born free, some men might perhaps try to put others in chains, and they may even believe that they ought to put them in chains. And conversely, even if men were born in chains, many of us might demand the removal of these chains. Or to put this matter more precisely, if we consider a fact as alterable—such as the fact that many people are suffering from dis­eases—then we can always adopt a number of different attitudes towards this fact: more especially, we can decide to make an attempt to alter it; or we can decide to resist any such attempt; or we can decide not to take action at all.

All moral decisions pertain in this way to some fact or other, especially to some fact of social life, and all (alterable) facts of social life can give rise to many different decisions. Which shows that the decisions can never be derivable from these facts, or from a description of these facts. [ch. 5, 67]

The ethics of solving society’s problems

I wish to outline another approach to social engineering, namely, that of piecemeal engineering. It is an approach which I think to be methodologically sound. The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of search­ing for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good. …

In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage isnot very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial. But if it is easier to reach a reasonable agreement about existing evils and the means of combating them than it is about an ideal good and the means of its realization, then there is also more hope that by using the piecemeal method we may get over the very greatest prac­tical difficulty of all reasonable political reform, namely, the use of reason, instead of passion and violence, in executing the programme. There will be a possibility of reaching a reasonable compromise and therefore of achieving the im­provement by democratic methods. [ch. 9, 171-3]

The moral responsibilities of superiority

I wish to express my belief that personal superiority, whether racial or intellectual or moral or educational, can never establish a claim to political prerogatives, even if such superiority could be ascertained. Most people in civilized countries nowadays admit racial superiority to be a myth; but even if it were an established fact, it should not create special political rights, though it might create special moral responsibilities for the superior persons. Analogous demands should be made of those who are intellectually and morally and educationally superior; and I cannot help feeling that the opposite claims of certain intellectualists and moralists only show how little successful their education has been, since it failed to make them aware of their own limitations, and of their Pharisaism. [ch. 4, 54]

Any objective question is subject to proof

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health; but how is it possible to prove that health is good? … There is a larger meaning of the word proof, in which this question is as amenable to it as any other of the disputed questions of philosophy. The subject is within the cognisance of the rational faculty; and neither does that faculty deal with it solely in the way of intuition. Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof. [ch. I, 157-8]

Man a machine?

The doctrine that men are machines, or robot is, is a fairly old one. Its first clear and forceful formulation is due, it seems, to the title of a famous book by La Mettrie, Man a Machine [1747]; though the first writer to play with the idea of robots was Homer.

Yet machines are clearly not ends in themselves, however complicated they may be. They may be valuable because of their usefulness, or because of their rarity; and a certain specimen may be valuable because of its historical unique­ness. But machines become valueless if they do not have a rarity value: if there are too many of a kind we are prepared to pay to have them removed. On the other hand, we value human lives in spite of the problem of over-population, the gravest of all social problems of our time. We respect even the life of a murderer.

It must be admitted that, after two world wars, and under the threat of the new means for mass destruction, there has been a frightening deterioration of respect for human life in some strata of our society. This makes it particularly urgent to reaffirm in what follows a view from which we have, I think, no reason to deviate: the view that men are ends in them­selves and not “just” machines.

We can divide those who uphold the doctrine that men are machines, or a similar doctrine, into two categories: those who deny the existence of mental events, of personal experiences, or of consciousness; or who say perhaps that the question whether such experiences exist is of minor importance and may be safely left open; and those who admit the existence of mental events, but assert that they are “epiphenomena” – that everything can be explained without them, since the material world is causally closed. But whether they belong to the one category or the other, both must neglect, it seems to me, the reality of human suffering, and the significance of the fight against unnecessary suffering.

Thus I regard the doctrine that men are machines not only as mistaken, but as prone to undermine a humanist ethics. However, this very reason makes it all the more necessary to stress that the great defenders of that doctrine – all up­holders of humanist ethics. From Democritus and Lucretius to Herbert Feigl and Anthony Quinton, materialist philo­sophers have usually been humanists and fighters for freedom and enlightenment; and, sad to say, their opponents have sometimes been the opposite. Thus just because I regard materialism as mistaken – just because I do not believe that men are machines or automata – I wish to stress the great and indeed vital role which the materialist philosophy has played in the evolution of human thought, and of humanist ethics. [4-5]

No justification, ever

Unsere Kritik an der klassischen Methodologie der zureichenden Begründung läßt sich nun prinzipiell auch auf das ethische Grundlagenproblem anwenden, dann sie zielt ja auf die allgemeine Struktur des Begründungsdenkens ohne Rücksicht darauf, welche Art von Überzeugungen zur Diskussion steht. [86]

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