Comments on “Ethics”

Such a cocktease

Joey 2017-04-04


I am absolutely loving your pragmatic analysis of how to respond to meaning; In much the same way, I feel, the Buddha presented not a philosophy, but a practice. The only thing I have to complain about is I wish there were more! Just when you get to the real meat of the matter, I come to a page like this that tantalizingly hints at what you want to express without laying it all out. Please, write more about what the complete stance entails!


Sasha 2017-07-21

Fascinating idea about ‘ethical fungibility’. I’m going to observe myself to see if I can catch myself in that rationalization!

Meanwhile, this one knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber:
” In fact, nearly everyone in modern societies agrees about nearly everything. “
Is that so?
What of issues of great and vehement disagreement, like:
- policies and role of government (socialism vs. hands-off, etc)
- abortion
- sexual ethics and morality
- animal rights (veganism, animal experimentation, hunting, etc)
- environmental issues
- the death penalty
- wars!!!!

Ethical agreement

David Chapman 2017-07-21

What of issues of great and vehement disagreement

Well, I think you listed most of them. A dozen or so issues of disagreement vs. maybe thousands on which there is agreement?

And, of those you listed, I think many/most are not genuinely ethical issues, although they are pitched that way. The reasons people pretend they are ethical when they actually aren’t are interesting… My post “Ethics is advertising,” on another site, explains some reasons.

Why some of those issues are not genuinely ethical:

  • Policies and role of government: people’s opinions mainly follow self-interest, and then we justify them in terms of ethics after the fact
  • Abortion: almost entirely a symbolic, tribal-identity issue for opponents; I wrote about that here and elsewhere
  • Sexual ethics and morality: I think also almost entirely self-interest; see here

I think most or all the others you listed could also be analyzed as mainly self-interest and/or tribal signalling.

Spelling error or misunderstanding

Trevor West 2018-08-15

Ethical nihilism recognizes (accurately) that ethics has none…

By “has none,” do you mean that ethical nihilism recognizes that ethics has no value? I was understanding “has none” initially by thinking ‘has no ethics,’ but that didn’t really make sense either, haha.

Either way, it will be a clarification (^_^)

has none

Dan 2018-08-20

Trevor, I read it as a continuation of a thought from a few paragraphs back:

The underlying mistaken metaphysical assumption is that, to be meaningful, ethics must have a definite, objective foundation.... Ethical nihilism recognizes (accurately) that ethics has [no definite, objective foundation], but concludes that ethics is merely subjective and/or meaningless. This is wrong....

Has none

David Chapman 2018-08-21

Trevor — Thank you for alerting me to this error!

Dan — Yes, you guessed right. This text was condensed from a much longer, but incomplete version; and that left this confusion.

I’ve fixed it now.

Pragmatic ethics

James 2019-04-29

Have you run across Hugh LaFollette’s paper “Pragmatic Ethics”?

It seems very close to what you’re getting at. Instead of looking for an a priori set of rules to follow, his focus is on how we develop and evaluate moral habits in actual practice.

From the paper:

A pragmatic ethic employs criteria without being criterial. It is objective without being absolutist. It acknowledges that ethical judgements are relative, without being relativistic. And it tolerates - indeed, welcomes - some moral differences, without being irresolute.

Hugh LaFollette

David Chapman 2019-05-12

Thank you, I hadn’t seen that, and it does look relevant! Queued to read when I get back to this part of the book.

Moral Ecology

James 2020-07-23

I know it’ll probably be a while before you get back to this section, but I wrote a blog post I thought you might be interested in, since your work here is one of the inspirations behind it.

In the post I outline a “myth of Moral Ecology” as an alternative to the Hegelian/Spencerian myth of Moral Progress. Like with Progress, I base my myth on an analogy with evolutionary biology, but without making the mistake that evolution is going someplace.

Ethics and Sacredness as sources of value

Demko 2021-03-14

I’ve been reading through the book, roughly front to back, and mostly feel that I’m following your project. I’m most confused by a topic you haven’t spent a lot of time on yet: Sacredness.

I am confused about Sacredness, because it was the one topic where I didn’t feel any attachment to the confused stances you presented, and so far as I can tell, never have. Given how well the other topics resonate with me, I’m tempted to think I have just misunderstood what you were trying to convey, or that I might have recognized it more clearly if you had used a different word.

So I was intrigued when you brought it up in this chapter on ethics, as a (mostly lost) source of values.

I have for many years (honestly, decades) been unsatisfied with what I knew of all ethical systems on offer, but remained intensely and unhealthily interested in the subject. I was keen to have a standard by which to measure the quality of ethical decisions, so that I could still think and talk about ethical questions, and by chance I decided to adopt something akin to Aesthetic choice. This allowed me to feel satisfied about my reasons for making and (when relevant) advising a wide range of actions in a wide variety of circumstances, without risking being totally incomprehensible to people around me. I felt good about the judgements because they were aesthetically pleasing to me, and I was roughly consistent with the thinking of others, because aesthetic judgements do seem to be widely and at least approximately shared (greater alignment across people who are “closer” to me, culturally, than “more distant”, but still not completely alien even to complete strangers, I suspected). When presented with a question about how a person should behave, I could answer questions like “given what I know of the situation, am I likely to be happy with the outcome of this choice?”, “Am I happy with the choice itself?” and even “Do I really care all that much about the specifics of how a person should act here, so long as they don’t do something purposefully and obviously harmful?”

One way of looking at this is that I might have chosen to do roughly the opposite of what you are described as pushing Ethics to encompass things that aren’t really ethical. Rather than Ethics replacing other parts of my thinking, I had adopted a strategy of replacing Ethics with something that wasn’t Ethics. And by and large, it hasn’t done a lot of harm - so far as I can tell. My most regrettable choices have mostly occured on occasions when I had concluded that a decisions strictly needed to be handled Ethically, and I ended up adopting one of what you would call the confused stances, for want of any alternative.

Which brings me back around to the question of what it was that you meant by Sacredness. Because if you are saying that many interesting decisions that we face are less questions of Ethics than they are questions of Sacredness, then it is possible that what I had been doing with what I considered to be Aesthetics was working primarily because I was mostly in practice facing questions around what you might call Sacred values, and that the words we have chosen (sacred/aesthetic) mean something very similar to each of us respectively.

It is hard for me to tell though, because I have seen so little of your thought on the topic. And I have unhelpfully said very little about what I mean by “Aesthetic”… I am being purposefully greedy and want to hear your side of the story first.

Types of value

David Chapman 2021-03-16

FWIW, in boring academic philosophy, “axiology” is the field that studies value, including ethics, aesthetics, and sacredness. They all have some things in common and some differences.

I don’t expect to get to discuss sacredness here for several years, if ever, I’m afraid, and definitely never aesthetics. So if you’d like to explore this, some other source would be a better bet.

I appreciate the followup

Demko 2021-03-17

Thank you, your brief comment has been helpful, in the sense that I have never heard of “axiology”, so at least now I have a thread to pull on.

Re: Sacredness

Kate Lemon 2022-06-05

Like Demko (above), I also want to know more about sacredness.

This page summarizes religious, secular, and complete (if “kadag” is complete?) views of sacredness:

And this post (on David’s other blog) starts to explain how since nothing is inherently sacred, everything can be sacred:

Note that David said (in a comment) “I wrote this post more than a decade ago, partly addressing particular circumstances that aren’t relevant any more… I’d like to revise it, but that doesn’t seem the most important thing.”

So I guess we’ll just have to wait :P