Ethics - Study Notes
ETHICS – by Simon Blackburn
‘Ethics’ (or ‘moral philosophy’) is about moral beliefs. Most people have moral beliefs – for example, ‘cruelty is wrong’, ‘kindness is good’, ‘murder is wrong’, ‘benevolence is a virtue’ and so on. Philosophers ask, what is the basis of these beliefs? We are not asking how do we come to have these beliefs, for that would turn the question into a purely psychological enquiry about how we acquire beliefs of one sort or another during our upbringing. The philosophical question is different: what justifies these beliefs? Are they true in some way, or are they basically matters of opinion?
Blackburn’s plan in his book is to seek a justification for moral, or ethical, beliefs. His strategy is to start by disposing of what he calls ‘seven threats to ethics’, the first of which (on p9) is the alleged ‘death of God’ This sounds rather alarming, but what I think he is talking about is (in the main) the major decline in religious belief which has taken place in the last 200 years or so (in the Western world at any rate). The point he is making is that if morality was traditionally based upon religion and if religion has declined or receded (for whatever reason), does this mean there is no longer a basis for morality? Without a lawgiver, as he puts it, how can there be a law?
Of course, it would inform our consideration of this question if we knew, one way or the other, whether there is a God or not, but if we start going into the question of God’s existence or otherwise here and now, it’ll be a good long while before we get back to Ethics and Blackburn’s book. Hopefully we’ll be looking at the Philosophy of Religion at another meeting very soon. In any event, in Blackburn’s view the possible non-existence of God is not a threat to Ethics. Maybe we can ‘make our own laws’, as he puts it, and we can still pursue our enquiries into the meaning of ethical terminology. We shall see.
The next ‘threat to ethics’ which Blackburn discusses is ethical relativism. Before we go any further, this should not be confused with ‘situational’ relativism where ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depend upon the situation. For example it is right and important to tell the truth in most situations but not if it means betraying secrets or passing confidential information to a third party. ‘Situational relativism’ and its pros and cons is a topic in itself.
Ethical relativism on the other hand is the thesis that the meanings of the words ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and so on are relative from one society to another, one culture to another, from one era to another, so that ultimately they have no ‘absolute’ or ‘universal’ meaning (or so it is said or implied). Different societies are said to have different value systems, each one being ‘valid’ within its own context. It would seem to follow that we should not appraise or criticize the moral beliefs of another society according to our own moral beliefs which only apply here. On the positive side relativism suggests a tolerant approach towards customs, values and ways of living that are different from our own. Diversity and pluralism should be welcomed, accepted and respected. Does it mean, though, that our own value-beliefs are in some sense arbitrary? If they are ‘just ours’, as Blackburn puts it, does this mean they don’t have any real ‘authority’ if they are just a matter of custom?
But relativism faces problems of its own. For example if we ought to respect different systems of values and of ethics as being ‘equally valid’, then taken literally this would or could confer validity on practices and customs which might be considered morally outrageous by anyone. Blackburn gives some good examples on p21; we could also mention totalitarian value systems as under Nazism or Stalinism. Are they OK, in terms of relativism? Anti-semitism is endemic within Central and Eastern Europe (it always has been); are we to say that’s only a local tradition, so it’s OK? And just going back for a moment to the suggestion that relativism implies tolerance of different cultures, practices and value-systems, it is equally compatible with laissez-faire, apathy and indifference.
The main criticism of relativism is that whilst it highlights the differences, it seems to play down the similarities between the value systems of different societies. Blackburn makes this point too on p24. For example, all human societies, past and present, East and West, from the most primitive to the most modern, regard murder as wrong (often distinguished, by the way, from the rightness of killing in self-defence if absolutely necessary). Violent assault, rape, gross cruelty and deception are universally regarded as serious wrongs. There is a universal concept of the rightness of caring for children and the duty of ensuring their safety and well-being. All societies condemn the activities of social delinquents, with penalties for transgressors. Although property may be communally or individually owned to varying extents, there is also a universal concept of theft.
We seem to have a core of universal, basic moral norms to be found in all societies, this core being at the basis of a more variable ‘superstructure’ of conventions, customs and ethical interpretations which do differ from culture to culture and from one historical period to another. So we do not have seemingly random variances from one society to another, we have variations around a set of norms. This suggests a modified form of relativism which some theorists call ‘structural relativism’, although I don’t think Blackburn mentions this. I do not think it is a ‘threat to ethics’; if anything, quite the reverse. Also it neither implies nor endorses the ‘anything goes’ concept of ethics which some people seem to have.
Now we move on to egoism, another potential ‘threat to ethics’. Egoism should not be confused with egotism, which simply means conceit, vanity, that sort of thing. Egoism is a theory, that human beings only act for reasons which are always basically selfish (except for doing something by accident, unintentionally, involuntarily or under duress). Egoism does not simply say that actions are ‘self-motivated’ - which is in itself compatible with saying that some actions are unselfish. For the egoist, actions are always, basically, selfish, including those which are only apparently done out of selfless, altruistic or moral motives.
It is perfectly true that selfishness is a widespread human failing. But the egoist says that even when people do things out of honesty or generosity or at the cost of personal inconvenience or self-sacrifice, this is misleading for ‘basically’ they are acting out of the need to feel good about themselves. This is a selfish motivation. Therefore it is meaningless to praise people for doing the ‘right’ thing or through moral duty or altruism.
And whatever evidence we try to put against the theory of egoism is dismissed, for even acts of self-sacrifice are always ‘explained away’ in terms of selfish motivation. But this is why the theory of egoism fails. Because it makes itself compatible with all forms of evidence both for it and against it, it is untestable. This means that as a theory it is indeterminate - it is at most a conjecture which can be neither proved nor disproved. On that basis I don’t think it’s a ‘threat to ethics’ other than as a negative attitude masquerading as a ‘theory’. It is a pseudo-theory.
Next Blackburn considers evolutionary theory, in particular popular misinterpretations of evolutionary theory, as threats to ethics. Note that he is not engaged in a discussion of whether evolution is correct or incorrect as a theory, and he is not taking sides in the evolution versus creationism debate. He is more concerned to point out how certain versions of dumbed-down ‘popular science’ seem to distort things. For example evolution is said to ‘explain’ how altruistic behaviour within our own species and others is ‘really’ a survival mechanism, therefore there’s ‘really’ no such thing as altruism, only survival mechanisms. If this (according to Blackburn) is what they’re saying, then it’s a simple example of the fallacy of confusing origin with identity. You might as well say ‘Modern French evolved from Latin therefore French people are really speaking Latin’. False!
Again, it is commonly believed that when Darwin wrote about how some species adapt more readily to their environment than others, he was writing about ‘the survival of the fittest’. I’m not sure whether he used that phrase himself, but only a few decades later when Mussolini was working as a hack-journalist before he became dictator of Italy, he was saying that struggle was the basic law of life therefore nations should fight to assert their supremacy. And so on and so forth. Unless I am mistaken, I do not believe Darwin sought to apply his theory of evolution to international politics. As Blackburn says, it is not evolutionary theory itself which is a threat to ethics, but misinterpretations of it (usually by non-scientists).
Next, Blackburn takes a brief look at the question of determinism, the idea that ‘it’s all in our genes; we just do as we are programmed to do’. The problem is that if this is true, then aren’t we mistaken in thinking of ourselves as responsible agents with free will who are accountable for our own actions? If we are pre-programmed, how can we be? Also, if the notions of free will and responsibility are illusory, then so is the whole idea of ethics, or so it would seem. Blackburn goes part of the way towards an answer in saying that we are ‘input-responsive’, meaning that however we are ‘programmed’ we can vary our behaviour in response to what we hear, feel, touch or see. But is ‘input-responsiveness’ sufficient to falsify determinism? Presumably input-responsiveness is itself some sort of internal mental or neurological process, so what if it too is purely a function of how the process works plus whatever the ‘input’ is? This seems to bring us back to determinism so I’m not convinced Blackburn has succeeded in laying that particular ghost. I’d like to suggest we discuss freedom of the will as a topic in its own right at one of our future meetings.
Blackburn concludes Part One of his book with a look at ‘Unreasonable Demands’ and ‘False Consciousness’. ‘Unreasonable Demands’ concerns how stringent should moral demands be? For example, should we always tell the truth? There are ‘white lies’ deliberately told so as not to hurt people’s feelings. Then there are lies deliberately told to avert misfortune, such as lying to your friend’s enemy about your friend’s whereabouts. Are these untruths wrong? I think many people would say ‘no’. Being charitable poses other issues. Some people are poor, and most people would agree that some form of charitable giving is morally right – but how obligatory is this? Quite apart from the rich, should anyone with savings or disposable incomes give them all away to the poor? Blackburn’s answer is that ethics must relate to demands that human beings can reasonably make of each other. So lots of people give some money to charity, but not their life savings.
‘False consciousness’ is where Ethics is perceived or portrayed as an ‘instrument of oppression’ of some sort. It could be an ‘instrument of male oppression’, an ‘instrument of class oppression’, an exercise of ‘power and control’, and so on. The short answer is that it may be any or all of these things, but then again it may not. By what methodology can we tell? Blackburn does not ask this question, although I think he could have done. But what he does say, and he’s right, is that ethics is not in itself an institution or an organization (of any sort). He should however have added that the law on the other hand is an institution and since the 1970’s feminist lawyers have identified gender bias in many branches of the law; this is proven fact. However – to criticize the law is one thing, but to turn this into a criticism of ethics would be a mistake for they are two different things. Law and ethics are inter-related but they are not the same, and this is a very complex topic in itself.
Moving on to Part Two, Blackburn looks at various issues within ‘applied ethics’ such as birth, death, the ‘meaning of life’ and pleasure. On birth, Blackburn discusses the abortion issue. I think he is right to be disparaging about the black or white character of the public debate on this question. He is also correct in reminding us that the one-cell starting point of pregnancy is a different kettle of fish, as he puts it, from the baby about to be born. He favours a gradualist, non-absolutist approach which takes account of a woman’s reasons for seeking an abortion, which can vary from the very compelling to the less compelling.
He is critical of the introduction into the debate of deontological notions such as rights, justice, duties, what is permissible and what is not. He is equally critical of politicizing the issue too, and he is cautious about where to draw the line as between whether an abortion should or should not take place. He might sound non-committal, or even undecided on this issue, but philosophers often refrain from ‘taking sides’. What they are usually doing is to explore the type of reasoning which is appropriate to a particular issue. Or is this just an excuse for not grasping the nettle? Or for sitting on the fence?
On death, Blackburn makes some interesting observations on death not being a condition one is in, but simply that one doesn’t exist anymore. He also notes the near-paradox which appears to result if death is not an evil – if it is not an evil, then what is wrong with killing? He mentions the euthanasia/assisted suicide question but does not address it in any detail, although he correctly refers to the distinction between killing and letting die (and whether there is a distinction).
In a very brief section on ‘pleasure’, Blackburn contrasts different philosophers’ views on what it is, or what constitutes ‘the good life’. Quite apart from questions about the starting, ending and ‘meaning’ of life, we still have to consider how it should be lived in the ‘here and now’. The obvious answer is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, according to philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). This sounds reasonable enough but should it include the basic hedonistic pleasures of the flesh and satiation? What about Joe Soap whose principal pleasure is to get as high as a kite on pink gin all day long? John Stuart Mill (1806-73) had in mind ‘higher order’ pleasures such as friendship, achievement, art and music. A major problem with either account of pleasure is how to measure pleasure, if we want to evaluate whether one sort of pleasure is greater or more important than another. Another question is, how can we do this without indirectly making value judgments?
Blackburn seems to favour Aristotle’s view of ‘the good life’, notwithstanding certain reservations. This means living in accordance with life’s purpose, very difficult to define but it requires ‘genuineness’, reasoning, activity, creativity, engagement with others, a ‘natural’ life. But these can all be problematical concepts. Firstly there is a major question over life’s ‘purpose’ – how can we know what it is, as a generality? What if behaving ‘naturally’ implies ruthless struggle with others? And as Blackburn remarks, what is wrong with ‘unnatural’ things such as books, concerts or bicycles?
Blackburn then goes on to discuss utilitarian ethics, based on the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ principle. “The good” is identified with the pleasure and welfare of people as a whole, although ‘pleasure’ and ‘welfare’ do not necessarily mean the same thing. But the criterion for ‘goodness’ is to identify it with the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, and things are ‘good’ or otherwise accordingly. This is objective and impartial, and it fits well with our ordinary notions of benevolence, caring for people’s welfare, and so on. It has obvious attractions as a ‘yardstick’ in practical affairs, and its objectivity is of great appeal to the administrator, the civil servant or the politician.
But Utilitarianism has difficulties, both practical and theoretical. What if the greatest happiness of the majority means that the interests or the rights of an individual or of a minority are ignored, threatened or denied? This could happen either deliberately or by default. Also, quite apart from Utilitarianism as a principle of public administration, I’m never completely clear about its place in our day-to-day lives other than as the principle of benevolence. Most people, I believe, give priority in their lives not to ‘the majority of the people’ but to their ‘nearest and dearest’ – their family, their children, their pets, friends, neighbours and so on. But does Utilitarianism mean that when you write your Last Will and Testament, you should bequeath your assets and worldly possessions not to your spouse, your sons or your daughters but to “the majority of the people” c/o the government?
This is only one example of how Utilitarianism leads in theory to bizarre results; there are plenty of others. For example if your total wealth and assets amount to, say, £500,000, the loss of £1000 may be a confounded nuisance to you but not a major harm. But if a person with no assets steals £1000 from you, his happiness is increased to a major and significant extent. Therefore in terms of the ‘greatest happiness’ principle, his act of theft is not only not a wrong but it is arguably morally right that he should steal £1000 from you. So we have a moral theory which by implication would appear to endorse theft! If you think that’s crazy, you’re in very good company.
It was soon realized by utilitarian theorists that anomalous results would be endless if Utilitarianism focused exclusively on individual acts in isolation; instead it is better formulated if the ‘greatest happiness’ principle is the basis of broad rules. So we distinguish between ‘act utilitarianism’ and ‘rule utilitarianism’. This means we do not assess or calculate the effects of individual actions (which would be hopelessly impractical anyway), we have general rules based on the ‘greatest happiness’ principle which cover classes of actions. For example ‘theft should be prohibited’, ‘people should pay their debts’, ‘inhumane actions should never be permitted’, and so on. Rule utilitarianism allows for interpretation and adjustment of rules, rather like a feedback loop, according to circumstances.
Of course, any version of Utilitarianism needs to be augmented by what some theorists call a harm principle or a comparative harm principle, otherwise it is incomplete. It is one thing to base ethics on the happiness principle, but it needs to be augmented by an explicit definition of ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ as including or causing any form of hurt or harm. Interestingly, this is easier to measure than pleasure.
Blackburn concludes Part Two of his book with a brief look at freedom and rights. He correctly notes that when it comes to ‘living well’, it is easier to define and to itemize not so much what people should have, but rather what has to be avoided. Nobody wants to suffer from domination by others, physical pain, misery, poverty, disrespect and so on. This ‘negative’ approach is, as he says, of most use in political philosophy. It is easier to say, and to implement, what has to be avoided than what has to be achieved. Of course, no political system can guarantee a life free from ‘depression, disease or disappointment’, as he puts it, but it can give freedom from persecution, harassment, arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, imprisonment without trial, slavery, concentration camps and so on.
We can distinguish between ‘negative’ freedom from various evils and ‘positive’ freedom to do things such as to succeed in business, become a great writer, reach the top of your profession, and so on. So long as a political system guarantees freedom from various evils, the rest is down to you – that is the ‘classic’ Western liberal approach.
But many ‘freedoms’ turn out to be problematic. For example freedom from illness means or implies that if you are ill, you should receive medical care. But this requires resources, plus the obligations of others to provide it. So freedom from illness is contingent upon other factors which may, in an uncertain world, be uncertain. Also, in order to have one freedom, freedoms of another sort can be compromised. For example a national health service such as ours has to be paid for via taxation, so you cannot have freedom from illness plus freedom from taxation (to take just one example). Freedom is not a blank cheque, as somebody once said. Or as somebody else once said, ‘there’s no such thing as a free meal’.
Similar problems occur with rights, which Blackburn discusses very briefly. Many rights are contingent upon the obligations of others; they do not ‘exist’ just in themselves, so to speak. In the Appendix to his book we are given the text of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights where Article 25 says that everyone has a right to a standard of living which includes food, clothing, housing, medical care and various other benefits, but what the Declaration does not specify is who exactly has the responsibility to provide all these benefits and with what resources. We seem to be talking about a set of rights which are not so much ‘false’ as incompletely defined. Sceptics query whether we should call them ‘rights’ at all.
The notion of ‘natural rights’ has always been contentious, and Jeremy Bentham criticized the whole idea of ‘natural rights’ as ‘nonsense on stilts’. He had a point – rights are not mysterious, intangible attributes which we ‘have’ in some way – they are relational concepts (claims, liberties, prerogatives, permissions and so on). The conventional rhetoric of rights – words such as ‘basic’, ‘fundamental’, ‘inalienable’ and so on – can sometimes be misleading. Bentham also noted the adversarial character of rights language; does it engender not co-operation, tolerance or respect between human beings, but merely conflict?
A good book on this topic is “Rights Talk – the Impoverishment of Political Discourse” (1991) by Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon. She says that ‘rights talk’ fails to regard the individual as a moral agent with responsibilities, but only as a ‘rights holder’ who goes around making claims and demands. Plenty of people seem to make up their rights as they go along. Rights talk also neglects the important distinction between having a right to do something and the right thing to do – which can be very different things!
But even so, although rights over-emphasis is an issue, rights are necessary in human affairs; boundaries are needed between different people’s interests, freedoms, obligations, liabilities and so on. But there are different types of rights, and the distinctions between claim-rights, liberty rights, positive rights, negative rights and so on are quite complex. Another good book is “The Realm of Rights” (1990) by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
We conclude with the third and final part of Blackburn’s book where he seeks out the basics of ethics, if any. He concentrates in the main on the views of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), by common consent one of the most important philosophers of all time. But the most I can do right now is to give a summary of Blackburn’s summary. Kant did not define or elaborate any ‘new’ moral principles – he kept them as they are (theft is wrong, charity is good, tell the truth and so on). What he did was to produce a thesis about moral principles, and the basic idea is very simple.
Noting that we sometimes find it necessary to say to someone ‘what if everyone did that?’, Kant turned this question into a basic principle of ethics which has come to be known as the universalizability principle. He proposed this as a sort of ‘litmus test’ to ascertain whether a principle or mode of behaviour is morally valid or not. And it works. What if everyone went around killing and stealing? Human society would be impossible. What if everyone went around respecting everyone else? What a better world we’d live in. And so on.
The universalizability principle amounts to a mode of moral reasoning which is impossible to ‘shrug off’ as just a matter of opinion. It is as irrational to ignore the universalizability principle as it is to ignore the rules of arithmetic or logic. Kant therefore grounded ethics in Reason, not in emotion or custom. Of course there is much more to Kant’s moral philosophy than that. In particular he emphasizes that behaving morally is an obligation, very, very different from today’s popular notion that moral values are ‘lifestyle choices’!
What is ‘good’, then? The only thing that is ‘good’ is a ‘good will’, but this is perilously close to being merely a tautology. Kant meant that acting rightly lies in our motive to act out of a sense of duty, or obligation, and the only valid obligation is what is determined by the universalizability principle. This is called the ‘categorical imperative’, and it is external to the agent; it is a mistake to confuse it with purely psychological feelings of obligation. It has to be rationalized through the universalizability principle.
An important corollary of Kant’s ethics is that we should never regard people as means to an end, but always as ends in themselves. Another corollary is that lying is always and in all circumstances wrong. However both of these principles are open to criticism. But as Blackburn points out, the question of how to interpret Kant’s principles in practice is far from clear. Nevertheless, Kant has been highly influential, for example in the very important Theory of Justice (1971) by American philosopher John Rawls. But if we start talking about that book, with its 500-odd pages, we’ll be here until midnight.
I think on balance Blackburn has produced a useful and thought-provoking book. One major omission is his failure to discuss the concept of equality which often occurs within moral discourse, and another is his failure to include what is known as ethical non-cognitivism in his list of threats to ethics. In my own opinion, this is the major threat to ethics. I therefore provide herewith a short essay on that topic which I wrote a couple of years ago and circulated to members of the Aberdeen U3A Philosophy Group.