Ethics: a new beginning

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Available systems of ethics are dysfunctional. They ignore nearly all the ethical questions people actually have. Academic and theological answers are useless, not because they are wrong, but because they address questions no one cares about.

Our most pressing ethical questions—such as “how ethical should I be?”—cannot even be asked within existing systems, much less answered correctly. And so, in practice, everyone has abandoned the systems.

Unconstrained by systems, ethical claims have proliferated as metastatic cancers of meaning, infiltrating tumors into every organ of culture.

Useful analysis has to start over—but not from scratch. We all do ask the questions that matter, and not all our answers are wrong. Everyday ethical experience goes most of the way toward an accurate ethical analysis.

The structure of this chapter should be familiar by now: it looks at an opposing pair of confused stances that share a mistaken metaphysical assumption; diagnoses the mistake as a failure to appreciate the nebulosity of the topic (ethics); and develops the complete stance that recognizes the inseparability of the nebulosity and pattern of the topic.

The underlying mistaken metaphysical assumption is that, to be meaningful, ethics must have a definite, objective foundation.

Ethical eternalism assumes there must be a correct ethical system that accurately reflects the objective reality. (This is a classic example of wistful certainty: there must be one, otherwise the universe would be bad and wrong, and that’s unthinkable.)

One main reason for clinging to eternalism in general is the fear that without an eternal ordering principle, ethics is impossible. It is thought that ethics must be based in a transcendent source such as God or Rationality or Progress. Fortunately, that is not the case. Ethics arises, reliably, from the patterned interaction of innumerable factors. It does not require a definite foundation.

All existing eternalistic ethical theories are not merely wrong, they’re entirely irrelevant to the issues we actually care about. The ones they obsess over (deontology vs. consequentialism, trolley problems, what Jesus would have said) no one cares about. Those are quite unlike the ethical questions we typically encounter.

Ethical nihilism recognizes (accurately) that ethics has none, but concludes that ethics is merely subjective and/or meaningless. This is wrong; it seems plausible only if one fails to challenge the underlying metaphysical assumption about the nature of ethics.

Ethical responsiveness rejects the assumption and so can develop an accurate ethical practice.

Since this three-fold pattern of analysis is now familiar, I can dispose of ethical eternalism and ethical nihilism reasonably quickly.

Most of the chapter is devoted to an exploration of everyday ethical practice. Ethics is not a system of reasons (as in consequentialism and deontology), nor of personal traits (as in virtue ethics). It is patterns of situated social practice. “Situated” means that it is unboundedly dependent on context. “Social practice” means that it is inherently collaborative, improvisational, and interpretive.

I discuss numerous ethical phenomena that everyone encounters regularly, that we actually care about, and that are mostly or entirely ignored by existing ethical theories. I’ll address these both from an informal, participant-observer point of view, and based on recent research in evolutionary psychology and sociology. Along the way, I gradually introduce my normative judgements, pointing toward “responsiveness.”

How ethical should I be?

This question comes up several times a day for most people, I believe. There is no existing ethical framework in which it can even be asked, much less answered. I think that’s a serious problem. People are disappointed by ethics and religion because they don’t get an answer, and that has negative consequences.

I use the question to introduce the flavor of my approach. It’s also a “forcing question”: trying to answer it uncovers a series of related issues in everyday ethical practice, which might otherwise be overlooked.

My first answer is that we should all be much less ethical. This answer is somewhat flip, and I’ll take it through a series of qualifications, modifications, and reverses. However, it’s also quite serious. The absence of a workable ethical framework leads us to devote great effort to applying ethics in domains where it’s the wrong tool. We should all stop doing that.

Ethical nebulosity, ethical anxiety, and ethical ease

[We cannot be certain about ethics because the topic is inherently nebulous. This leads to ethical anxiety. Ethical anxiety motivates much dysfunction, at both personal and whole-society levels. It is mainly unnecessary, however. Accepting the interplay of nebulosity and pattern dissolves most of it.]

Ethical value and ethical metastasis

[There are many forms of value: pragmatic value, aesthetic value, religious value, and ethical value among them. Over the past century, pluralism and relativism have eroded all types of value other than pragmatic and ethical. This leads to mis-using ethics as a stand-in for other non-pragmatic forms of value, notably sacredness. This ethical metastasis is hugely harmful. (I will analyze many specific cases.) I advocate de-ethicizing various domains and restoring them to their proper value-types.]

Ethical display, ethical fungibility, and values marketing

[Ethical display is communicating your ethical position. I'm using the word "display" in the ethnomethodological sense; it's closely related to "signaling" in evolutionary psychology and economics. (I've written at length about ethical signaling elsewhere.)]

[Ethical fungibility is the idea that you can be less ethical in one situation if you've been more ethical than required in another. (Or, if you want to be less ethical now, you can promise to yourself that you'll make it up later.) There's an implicit sense of "karmic bank account" involved. We all do this, although it leads us to do wrong things. It makes intuitive sense due to the absence of a coherent approach to the question "how ethical should I be?".]

[Values marketing exploits ethical fungibility by adding small amounts of "ethics" to products in order to justify a much higher price tag. "Fair trade" coffee is the canonical example. People buy it to alleviate ethical anxiety and to build up their ethical bank balance. Starbucks is in the business of selling indulgences, in the Pre-Reformation sense!]

Ethical agreement

[Most supposed ethical disagreements are not genuinely about ethics, but about other value-types, or are display strategies. In fact, nearly everyone in modern societies agrees about nearly everything. Recognizing this alleviates ethical anxiety and promotes ethical freedom.]

Ethical freedom

[Here I discuss freedom from ethics. Often choice of action is not an ethical issue: you can do what you want. Ethical considerations are often not overriding (even where they apply at all). This is tremendously important, because creativity and enjoyment live in the zone between "must" and "must not."]

Ethical responsiveness: the complete stance

[Treating ethics as a situated social practice, we can ask: what tools and skills are available? How can we do this better?]

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This page introduces a section containing the following:

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.