An Essay by O.G. Rose
Ethics as Irony
Ethics is an ‘(im)moral’ study. While reading The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant, I do not try to save the life of a starving child in Africa: I act immorally. Yet I am reading the text in order to learn how to be moral, and if it contributes to me being moral in the future, then I act morally. I act immorally relative to the child in Africa now, and morally to whom I will help in the future. In sum, I act (im)morally.
If I saw a child was drowning in front of me and didn’t jump in to save the child because I was reading Kant, I would act immorally. Yet that is exactly what people do whenever they read an ethical text, the only difference being that the child is hundreds of miles away and starving rather than drowning (which is arguably worse). Unless, that is, visibility and proximity have moral significance: unless the fact that the child doesn’t suffer near me makes it morally acceptable that I keep reading rather than help the child. If so, not only is morality contingent, but then by closing my eyes while someone is drowning nearby, I may free myself of moral responsibility.
In reading this paper, “(Im)morality”, ‘you close your eyes’, per se, to the suffering of the world around you: by reading, you act immorally. Worse yet, since humans have infinite value, you are infinitely immoral. Since infinity is limitless, even if you go and help a million children from this point on, you will still be infinitely immoral. Even if in the past you helped millions of children, the fact that you are reading this paper right now means you aren’t helping someone at this instant. Since that forsaken child has infinite value, you are infinitely immoral. As a man who has done thousands of good deeds but committed one murder is still a murderer in the eyes of the court, though you may help countless, infinitely valuable children, to neglect one is to be infinitely immoral forever.
Unless that is children don’t have infinite value. People have contingent value, based on some standard then? What standard? Money, social standing, genes, etc.? Perhaps society believes such, but if that’s true, then genocide, murder, rape, etc. cannot be equally immoral: it depends on whom the act is done against. Against a valuable person, the acts are very wrong; against an invaluable person, the acts aren’t so bad. But does the quality of a person really affect the morality of an act? If so, by what standard? If that can’t be determined, it must be said that humans either have no value or infinite, non-contingent value. If you believe people have any value, you believe people have infinite value. Therefore, if you don’t believe the worst of people, you must believe that, in reading this paper, you act infinitely immoral. But rather than ‘infinite value’, maybe ‘unalienable value’ is a better phrase? Does that linguistic change transform the immorality of you doing nothing as children suffer? Even if you do help millions later on (thanks to ethical insight garnered from this work), how does that make up for failing to help someone right now? Does one redeem a murder today by saving a life tomorrow?
If all this sounds silly to you, realize that it doesn’t to the suffering. Does this paper infinitely offend you? Isn’t it an infinite offensive against those you don’t help right now to be infinitely offended by something that forces you to acknowledge your (im)morality? Are the implications of this work infinitely outlandish? Don’t they have to have infinite implications to parallel the infinite worth of those you are overlooking at this very moment while reading? Do keep in mind that you really could be saving someone’s life, because a child somewhere is dying right now from a preventable disease or hunger which a few dollars could remedy (to allude to the thought of Peter Singer). Perhaps you’re poor, but are you really justified to not help someone just because you don’t have money? Are the lives of others contingent upon your economic situation? Why don’t you go and get money? Aren’t you at least obligated to try? And if you have money, what justifies you not giving it to someone who needs it immediately? And if you do give your money away to someone, why to that person and not someone else? What right do you have to judge one life as more worthy than another? If you watch someone get mugged in the street, is it alright if you do nothing just because you don’t have a way to defend the victim? Why don’t you go get a means of defense, and even if you can’t find something, why don’t you just do something? Instead of giving to the starving, perhaps you need the money to take care of your family? Does that mean your family is more important than the starving children? Haven’t you implied that with your actions? Should your family live while others die just because your family was lucky enough to be born in relation to you? Does life and death depend on birth? How can you make that selfish and moral judgment? And would your family really die if you gave away a few dollars to save someone else’s life? And why does your family deserve to be provided for, since they’ve most certainly let a moment go by in which they’ve contributed to letting children starve in Africa? Aren’t they guilty of an infinite trespass? Don’t they deserve death?
Don’t we all deserve death?
Every act is (im)moral. While asking ‘what is moral?’, I let children starve; therefore, asking ‘what is moral?’ is an immoral act, and yet insomuch as it prepares me to be moral, it is a moral act. At any given moment, a person acts immorally, for there is always suffering that a person doesn’t address. Yet even when a person acts morally on a limited scale, relative to the whole world, that person chooses to act morally to some rather than to others. This, in essence, judges some as more valuable than others, which is discriminatory, likely arbitrary, and immoral. Therefore, even in moments of moral action, a person is immoral, and in total, everyone and everything is (im)moral. This doesn’t mean that people are merely immoral, but that people are a constant synthesis of both.
Ethics is an ironic study: our attempts to be moral occur during our immorality. To learn how to be ethical requires not being ethical, and when I become ethical, I am ethical relative to some and unethical relative to others. Relative to particular individuals in particular moments, I can be moral, immoral, and/or (im)moral. Relative to the big picture, I can be immoral and/or (im)moral, never moral.
There is no moral life, only moral moments. You can live morally to those around you but cannot live morally to everyone in the world. Since people have infinite worth, your moral actions are negated by your immoral shortcomings. Unless that is you don’t believe people have infinite worth? Do you have infinite discernment to be able to pass such judgement? If not, you cannot say whether people do or do not have infinite value.
If you are saving someone’s life but across the street someone else is dying, is it acceptable if you don’t save that person? Who were you to judge that the life you saved was more important to help than the life you let perish? Does the fact that you serve children in America make it okay that you let children in Africa die? If you help children in Africa, what about the children in America? If you help one child, what about the other children? Doesn’t everyone have infinite value? Isn’t it always immoral to not help people who you could help? Is finitude a valid excuse against an infinite transgression? Does the fact that you can’t help everyone make it alright that you let some die? Does your ability to help someone dictate whether it’s moral to help an individual? Is the value of others contingent upon your condition and abilities? And is it ever the case that you truly can’t help someone? Couldn’t you pay someone to go to Africa and save a kid’s life as you took care of your sick mother? But what right do you have to judge that you should help one person versus another? And if rights are unalienable, I can’t give up my rights even if I wanted to, nor infringe upon the rights of another even if that individual tells me that I can. So even if someone says it’s alright for me to help someone else at their expense, I have no basis for letting that person give up their right to life. At the same time, I shouldn’t let someone I’m helping currently die as I go to help another, for then I would contribute to taking away that’s person unalienable right to life.
If a child was drowning right in front of you and you didn’t jump in because you didn’t want to get wet, you would be immoral. But someone is dying on the other side of the world right now, and you’re still reading this paper. And I’m writing it. We’re both immoral. Unless that is morality is contingent upon location? What if a child was drowning and the majority voted to let the child drown? Would it be okay then? What if you voted to help the child but the majority voted against you, resulting in you doing nothing? Could you really claim you’re moral simply because you voted to do the right thing? Is morality subservient to democracy? What if the child told you to let him die if the majority voted that way? Is morality subservient to words? What if the child was brainwashed? What if the majority threatened to kill the child’s parents if the child didn’t say that about his or her self? What if the majority’s threat was empty and yet you didn’t do anything because the child asked you not to, thinking the threat was substantive? What if you let the child die because you didn’t want to get wet or suffer any judgment from the majority and a jury found you innocent of murder? Is morality subservient to a jury? What if a judge told you not to save the child and you listened? Would that make it moral? —
And so on.
Ethics is too often just a game of quick wit. It’s meant to make the world a better place, but people being (im)moral, all too often Ethics just rewards creative thinkers with college tenure. Isn’t it good to contemplate moral questions? Well what is the moral justification behind the act of contemplating moral questions (especially considering that children are suffering while you’re thinking)? It would seem to me there is none, that there is no moral justification for reading about Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ as children suffer. In learning that I shouldn’t do something that I wouldn’t want to be a universal, moral law, I study philosophy while people suffer, which is something I shouldn’t want people compelled to do by a universal law. Of course, you could argue that if we never thought about certain problems, we wouldn’t know there was anything in the world that needed fixing in the first place, but does a starving child have the luxury to make such a counterpoint? Is a moment of thought ever justified if at the expense of a moment when a child’s pain could be alleviated? If so, by what standard? Tenure?
Ethics is too often an ironic game played at the expense of dignity. Take the question of whether consent has moral weight. If someone said ‘you can kill me’, would that make murder acceptable? Only if the person speaking isn’t brainwashed. How do you know if the person is or isn’t? You can’t, so consent is never entirely reliable. But what if the person isn’t brainwashed? Well what the person is able to consent to and what sort of weight the person is able to put behind his or her ‘verbal contract’ will be relative to the person’s genes and socioeconomic positioning, which will be highly dependent on what family the person was born into, etc. Therefore, consent and contracts are unfair, for the consent of a poor man may not have the weight of a rich one, seeing as a poor man may face circumstances that force him to will things that, free of those circumstances, the poor would not will. But doesn’t a poor person have an inherent dignity that validates his verbal contract? Well even if he has dignity, his contract can lack the weight of a rich, dignified man. But what if a poor person wants his ‘yes’ to mean ‘yes’ and his ‘no’ to mean ‘no’? His decisions and verbal consent are contingent upon variables outside his control (say genes, social pressures, etc.), so if he agrees to a given contract and wants his consent to be valid, if the contract has weight in favor of the rich party, the contract is unfair, which invalidates the poor man’s agreement. Then fairness supersedes human dignity and consent? If there isn’t fairness, human dignity lacks justice, and without that, dignity is negated. Why can’t justice be negated by dignity? —
And so on.
Endless ‘what ifs’, possibility after possibility, redefinition after redefinition — the study of Ethics is too easily a labyrinth of hypothetical situations. Even if morality is grounded, as Kant arguably accomplished, none of us can live morally. We are all (im)moral.
There are no theories in the world, only things that fit into theories. All theories of what constitutes ‘the moral life’ stuff the world into lenses and frameworks. What constitutes the ethical is relative to the framework being used, and hence morality is relative. This doesn’t mean there isn’t an Objective Right and Wrong, only that our understanding of that Objectivity is subjective. Ethics then becomes a process of determining which ‘right and wrong’ aligns with ‘Right and Wrong’. However, our goal then should be to determine what is ‘Right and Wrong’, not what is ethical, because the second will follow from the first. But how do we determine what is ‘Right and Wrong’?
Since we’re finite, we can’t be Objectively Moral or Ethical. We can only be subjectively ethical: we can only be moral and immoral at the same time. We are all (im)moral with no hope of achieving Objective Rightness (or at least not consciously, because if we did happen to act in alignment with Objectivity, we couldn’t know it for certain). Since we cannot transcend ourselves, the study of Ethics cannot make us Ethical. But if that’s the case, what exactly is the use of Ethics? Well, if there was no ‘space between people’, there would be no ethical acts. Since the existence of Ethics is contingent upon the relationship between the ‘I and other’, Ethics, more than teach us about how to be moral, teaches us how about to relate to each other and how to communicate.
Ethics teaches conversation.
Since words are often communicated poorly and misheard, words constantly fail. As Heidegger noted that we don’t notice a doorknob until it doesn’t work, we don’t engage in Ethics until something is broken, and what does the breaking is often words. It isn’t the world that is broken in and of itself (for the world just is itself to itself), but our words (and thoughts) that break it (relative to us). Consequently, it’s ‘our world’ that’s broken, not the ‘actual world’.
Ethical dilemmas are partly linguistic in nature: it is talking that makes us think in terms of the dichotomy of ‘right and wrong’. Words make us think the world is broken; in fact, the world is neither moral nor immoral, just nor unjust: it just exists. It is by talking and thinking in terms of morality that we put phenomena in the world into Ethical frameworks and so ascribe things ‘rightness’ and/or ‘wrongness’. Yet since we are all (im)moral (or ‘right/wrong’), all things in the world are ‘both’ (in sum, though one or the other relative to a given frame of spacetime). Yet conversations in Ethics classrooms often make us think only in terms of ‘either/or’ versus ‘both-ness’. Consequently, we attempt to live a moral life in a world that ‘isn’t’: we attempt to be ‘right instead of wrong’ when we are doomed to be both.¹
The very act of thinking ‘the doorknob is broken’ results in us thinking ourselves ‘toward’ the doorknob as if it were the only thing we were experiencing: we forget about the door, the room, etc. (all of which we are simultaneously perceiving). Likewise, the study of Ethics makes us think about a given subject as if it were the only subject, hence abstracting it and ourselves from the world. Consequently, whatever solution we find is an abstraction, and though it may fix the problem and make us moral relative to it, it doesn’t make us moral relative to the sum of the world. We can only be moral in part; we can never be wholly good.
If I intend to drive to California and succeed, it could be said that I did ‘the right thing’. This is because, relative to the intended framework, I fulfilled what I intended to do. In a sense, it could be said that I ‘did good’. Relative to given situations and practices, relative to what is intended or established as right and wrong, it can be said that a given act is one or the other. In a way, if I intend to go to California and I don’t, it could be said that I acted ‘immorally’, for I violated my will. When people say something is ‘immoral’ or ‘moral’, something like this is what they mean: they mean a person did ‘the right thing’ relative to the framework the act occurred within (which tends to be tied to the intentions of the person or the larger society).
Like moral rules and motivations, every exchange and interaction is such a ‘game’, per se, consisting of rules, intentions, and frameworks.² If I ask ‘will you go to the store?’, I am presenting you with a set of rules. One of these rules is ‘if you say ‘yes’ to this question, you are obligated to go with me’ (similar to ‘if you pass Go, collect $200’), as another is ‘if you say no, you aren’t obligated to go’ (there are potentially hundreds more rules). If you say ‘yes’ and don’t go to the store, you’ve acted ‘wrongly’ and/or ‘immorally’, for you’ve violated the ‘game’ and ‘social contract’ I presented you with through speaking.
A given individual can be part of a ‘game’ without knowing it, without exchanging words, etc. When I walk down a street, I’m in a ‘game’ with those driving by that entails the rule ‘don’t hit me with your car’. For when a person walks down a sidewalk (unless suicidal), whether saying it or not, the person is ‘darkly speaking’ (with his or her body, as expounded upon in “On Words and Determinism” by O.G. Rose) ‘don’t hit me’.³ When I walk past a person on the street, I’m saying, without speaking, ‘don’t steal from me’, ‘don’t punch me’, etc. Every moment between people consists of thousands of such rules being engaged with and established. We know them subconsciously, and this ‘knowing’ constitutes an objective basis for moral action. I just ‘know’ I shouldn’t steal money from someone — that is, unless my family is starving, etc. It is this ‘unless’ that makes us feel that we need to Objectify the objective, but it is only relative to each particular situation that what constitutes the objective can even be established, so a universal Objective (considering that each objective is different and particular), cannot be established. We can know the objective for a given ‘lived’ experience, but not the Objective for all.⁴ (Keep in mind though that this doesn’t mean there isn’t an Objectivity, only that it cannot be established or enacted over, rather than through, particularities.)
Ethics are like manners: they are something we learn (not just in the classroom, but from the sum total of our experiences) that, afterwards, we just ‘know’.⁵ Of course, we can immediately counter what we ‘know’ with a line from a Postmodern Ethics thinker or a cultural leader, but that doesn’t change the fact that we ‘knew’ something in the first place. Since in every exchange this ‘knowing’ is present, there is an objective right and wrong relative to every scenario, though that doesn’t mean everything about a scenario can be ‘known’ in such terms: ‘knowing’ I shouldn’t murder the person asking me to do x doesn’t mean I will ‘know if I should do x’. Whether a given ethics can be made Objective or universalized doesn’t change or lessen the objectivity or legitimacy of those particular ethics. If humans occupied a plane of universals rather than particularities, this inability to Objectify the objective would be problematic, but since humans don’t live in their heads, humans are free (to know one thing from another).
You know not to murder someone just as you know when you’re hungry, but as it doesn’t follow from this that a person will when hungry ‘know’ the difference between poisonous and good food, so a person won’t necessarily ‘know’ what falls under the category of ‘killing’ as opposed to ‘murder’. If from hunger one universalized that ‘people should eat’, this would be true and yet incomplete. When should they eat? How? What? Too many questions are bound up in the particularities. This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t eat and that there isn’t an answer to ‘how?’ and ‘what?’, but that the answers to these questions are different for every particular situation. Likewise, if one says ‘there is an objective right and wrong’, this would be true and yet incomplete. One would still have to establish ‘relative to what ‘game’?’, etc.
In a ‘game’, you just ‘know’ what you should and shouldn’t do. In more complicated situations, you may need to think about the situation harder or gather much more information, but you can eventually make a decision on the meaning of what you ‘know’ (and recognizing that you are (im)moral no matter what you decide will help you avoid paralysis).⁶ There is a difference between saying you don’t know the answer to a math problem and that you can’t know the answer. Ethics can help us learn how to think creatively so that we are better equipped to overcome such complexities, but Ethics cannot teach us what constitutes the ethical (only what might constitute the ethical), since the ethical is bound up in the particular. Even if we don’t know what we ‘know’ when we encounter an ethical dilemma, Ethics cannot always give us that answer. Only we can give it to ourselves, for only we can know the particularities which constitute the situations which we are involved in. At best, Ethics can equip us with the creative thinking that is vital for knowing and articulating what we ‘know’.
Since every interaction and experience is ‘one of one’, the rules and social contract of one exchange cannot be universalized to all (in line with Hume). No ‘game’ is exactly the same as another. Therefore, Ethics, as universal, is impossible. The only possibility is ethical acts relative to given interactions as designated by the rules and intentions of that given exchange (which probably only those involved can know). Can these ethical acts ever be deemed Objectively Good? No, but there’s no need: relative to its proper system and framework, a given ethic is objectively good. In this sense, acts can be objectively right or wrong, but not Objectively Right or Wrong (relative to humans and confirmed as such).
What is objectively right is tied to particularities, so to discuss Ethics ‘as if’ what is objectively right or wrong is, or can be, Objectively Right or Wrong, is futile. Since the objective is tied to the particular, it cannot be talked about, only experienced. Therefore, all discussions about objective right and wrong are contradictions and must blur objectivity with Objectivity. This isn’t because there is no Objectivity or objectivity, but because the very act of translating this ‘lived’ experience into words renders discussion about it meaningless.
Words aren’t objectively right or wrong as are acts. Therefore, the word ‘abuse’ isn’t wrong, though the act of abuse is wrong (given that there is no ‘game’ that could be consented to in which abuse, by definition, would be acceptable; otherwise, it wouldn’t be abuse).⁷ Yet the moment I say ‘abuse’, I am now talking about the act of abuse ‘as if’ it were the word ‘abuse’. Since in the sphere of acts the ethical is determinable, but not in the sphere of words, by speaking, I am running a risk of confusing myself. If I begin talking about the word ‘abuse’, I will never be able to determine the ethical. Yet, if I am talking calmly about abuse, I mustn’t be experiencing it, so by definition I must be engaging with that in which the ethical cannot be determined. Yet, in Ethics, the whole reason I discuss abuse is to determine what is ethical; I have engaged in irony.
In talking about things as right or wrong, we translate them into a sphere where right and wrong are indeterminable. Yet it is in the sphere of words where the study of Ethics operates. When I engage in Ethics, I talk about situations and words ‘in the mind’, not particular situations ‘in the world’. At best, I talk about one particular situation, but not two or hundreds (though in the world, countless situations are happening simultaneously). Determining from one what is universally right for all is impossible. Those involved can only take care of their given situation. In fact, they’re the only ones who can even understand it (for only they can know the ‘game’ they are engaged in). This isn’t to claim we cannot say that ‘sex trafficking’ or ‘murder is wrong’, only that individuals cannot determine which particular situations constitute ‘murder’ versus ‘killing’, ‘rape’ versus ‘sex’ (or even ‘necessary sex’), unless they are particularly involved (though this doesn’t mean there cannot be a system of justice and laws, as will be expounded upon).
Ethics, by definition, universalizes particularities, and so abstracts itself from the particularities where the ethical emerges. It does this through speaking about what cannot be discussed. The question ‘is it ever right to murder?’ treats the act of murder as if the concept can be abstracted from particular instances in which murder is committed (and so tends to blur the word ‘murder’ with ‘kill’). If I shoot an armed soldier who is threatening to kill my friend, it can be said that I’ve committed murder, but if in this act the rules of the ‘game’ were not such that shooting this solider constituted murder but defense (for example), such a claim would be wrong (though perhaps right relative to some abstract theory). In a different yet identical scenario, the rules could be different, and hence the act wrong. Ultimately, one could come up with endless hypothetical situations (Ethically). And the point is that one could, in fact, come up with endless ‘what ifs’. But no hypothetical situations exist in the world: they all exist in the mind. In the world, there are particularities and given instances with given rules and intentions between those involved, relative to which the objective right and wrong can be determined. Ethics, rather than equip people to be prepared for this, often equips people to live in their heads.
John Rawls came up with a hypothetical situation called ‘the veil of ignorance’ in order to establish a hypothetical contract relative to which people could determine the ethical. Rawls justified this act by claiming it is only through a hypothetical contract that a scenario can be imagined in which the ideals of autonomy and reciprocity can be realized without being susceptible to contingencies (like birth, genes, etc.). The idea behind ‘the veil of ignorance’ is that if people were born not knowing which genes, socioeconomic status, skills, etc. they would inherent upon birth, and if they could choose either to be born into a world in which everyone began equally or take a gamble on inequality, then people would choose equality. Therefore, to realize this ideal, society is moral in distributing wealth. Autonomy entails individual liberty, while reciprocity is a mutual interchange agreed to by autonomous individuals. Since to Rawls individuals would freely choose from behind ‘a veil of ignorance’ to distribute wealth evenly, then to distribute wealth in actuality doesn’t violate freedom. In fact, doing so accomplishes the long sought ideal of marrying liberty and fairness.
Yet we do not need to look toward brilliant hypothetical situations to achieve the ideal Rawls sought: in every particular ‘game’ (relative to itself), autonomy and reciprocity are one, transcendent of accidents, and so fair. These situations are so prevalently integrated into daily life that they’ve become like air to us: everywhere, yet seemingly nowhere. Similarly has become the unity of autonomy and reciprocity, making us believe we need to philosophically unify them. Ironically, as talking about things as right or wrong translates them to a sphere where right and wrong are indeterminable, the very act of thinking about liberty and fairness transfers them from actuality to abstraction where they are irrevocable (by definition). In actuality, the rivers of freedom and reciprocity are one river; in thought, apart. Consequently, we think (as we must) that the goal is impossible or requires a hypothetical contract, when in fact to do such is to seek what we already have. Furthermore, Rawls tries to justify a macro-ethic in which freedom and fairness are unified, and so to establish a universally objective ethic, rather than embrace particular objective ethics that emerge universally with particularities (but aren’t universal in themselves). Objectifying the objective is impossible, even when at the hands of a genius like Rawls.
When my friend says ‘do you want to go to the movies?’ and I answer ‘yes’, it is now fair (to her) for me to go, and I have claimed, indirectly, that I want to go, that I’m willing to exchange my time for her presence plus entertainment, and that my genes, socioeconomic condition, etc. won’t get in the way (and they won’t if others outside the ‘game’ don’t get involved). If it turns out I can’t go to the movies later on because my mother forces me to stay home (which I couldn’t have known ahead of time, stuck, like everyone, behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ between present and future), I am kept from being fair due to the family I was born into. All the same, I have acted unfairly, for I chose, autonomously, to put myself under the ‘moral law’ of a certain ‘game’, and so to make my actions susceptible to judgment against its standard. That said, it is doubtful that my friend will hold my failure to attend against me. Even when I act immorally, my friend can still treat me with empathy and understanding. There is groundwork and precedence for this empathy considering that we’re all, all the time, stuck behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ that divides present and future, and because we’re all (im)moral and so have no right to treat others as if we’re morally superior.
If someone asks ‘can you slam dunk?’ and I say ‘yes’, but I fail to do so because of my genes, I am guilty of lying. Perhaps I didn’t mean to lie and really thought I could, but I am still guilty of deceiving my friend and so not paying homage to human dignity (as Kant would say). Even if I didn’t mean to, I have violated an infinitely valuable being and so am guilty of an infinite transgression. Yet my fulfillment of this ‘contract’ wasn’t something I was capable of doing due to variables outside my control. Therefore, there is a sense in which I am innocent. Yet by saying ‘yes’, I forfeit that innocence which would have justified me had I said ‘no’. Therefore, ‘I acted immorally’ relative to this exchange, though it cannot be said that ‘I am immoral’ from it (for that would universalize a particular, though it can be said that I am (im)moral relative to the sum of phenomena in the world). But what if I really thought I could do it? Then I told a lie without meaning to as a result of deceiving myself.
(See how ‘what if’ can be stacked upon ‘what if’ forever?)
When it comes to determining the ethical relative to a particular exchange (and only to that particular exchange), one’s genes, socioeconomic status, etc. are irrelevant, and that relative to a particular experience in which ethical terms are meaningful, autonomy and reciprocity are one. There is no need for hypothetical situations: the real world, the one that’s so hard to be present in, gives us what philosophers seek in the abstract. We only have to worry about contingencies when we try to Objectify the objective, which results in confusion.
If someone signs a contract that results in him losing everything and was forced to sign it by a banker more powerful than himself (a banker who only has that power because he inherited it from his family), both of them are guilty of spending time not helping suffering children. Both are (im)moral, and this is the foundation upon which we must decide if the act of the banker is immoral or not. Is it immoral/(im)moral or just (im)moral? It depends on your moral theory, and even if it’s wrong, does this mean every contract is wrong? It depends on the particular contract and circumstance: one can never generalize from a particular. Even if it is wrong, it’s wrong that someone didn’t help the poor person from getting into this situation in the first place; it’s wrong that someone didn’t fire the banker; it’s wrong that those children are still not receiving help; it’s wrong that poverty exists —
And so on.
Every situation is comprised of hundreds of dimensions, each of which can be abstracted from the whole and placed within a dichotomy of ‘right and wrong’, resulting in abstraction. In truth, it isn’t immoral for the banker to take all the man’s possessions if those were the terms of the ‘game’ upon which both parties agreed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t unlawful (if so established by the society). Also, events and the consequences of those events are separate things: an event can be moral relative to itself, but its consequences can be immoral: means and ends have to be examined separately. Though it is moral or ‘right’ for the man to lose everything, that doesn’t mean ‘losing everything’ as a consequence is right in and of itself.⁸ And if a society so makes the laws, the banker’s contract can be lawful, but it can be unlawful for the poor man to be left with nothing. The society then is legally obligated to distribute wealth to the poor man until his situation is improved.
To return to Rawls, it should be noted that he was ultimately writing to justify establishing a moral backbone for distributing wealth. In doing so, he practically confused morality (which cannot be abstracted from particularities) with law (as will be expounded upon). There can be no ethical backbone for distributing wealth — the ethical can only be established between particularities, not across multiplicities — but distributism doesn’t need such a backbone.
If the law says ‘x will give y percent to z’, it is then ‘lawful’ to do so and ‘unlawful’ not to: whether or not it’s moral is a secondary (if not irrelevant) question. Whether it should be the law that taxes should be distributed relative to income should be determined relative to whether the process actually achieves its end, if those distributing the wealth can actually do so, if it actually eliminates poverty, etc. If distributing taxes doesn’t work, then it shouldn’t be done. Whether the initiative is ethical isn’t irrelevant but often a secondary concern: such a consideration often just confuses the question. What matters foremost is whether or not the initiative works: ethics can be focused on later, situation by situation.
Since universal ethics are impossible, societies create laws, which function similarly and universally. The ‘unlawful’ and the ‘immoral’ are not the same thing, though are constantly conflated. However, once a society passes laws, the ‘unlawful’ and the ‘immoral’ merge relative to the state, like two rivers that cross and then run together. Relative to the state and society under it, unlike between people, ‘the right thing’ is ‘practically’ determined by laws. Of course, if there were no laws against murder, murder would still be murder, but in what sense could it be said to be immoral? In the sense that a person is born not to be murdered and so ‘it isn’t fitting’? But could we say that people aren’t born to murder others? Couldn’t the purpose of some be to infringe upon the lives of others? Could we really ever be sure that murder is immoral? Is this example so extreme, considering Natural Selection? We may ‘know’ murder is wrong, but without the force of law, what could we do about it other than take the law into our own hands? And if we couldn’t do anything, how could we establish an actual difference between preferences like ‘pickles are bad’ and ethical convictions like ‘lying is bad’? Therefore, if it wasn’t against the law, could we say murder was wrong in any meaningful or ‘weighty’ sense?⁹
What is lawful is relative to the society and the laws it has established. Relative to a given society, what is unlawful is objectively wrong. As with personal interactions, no Objective Basis is needed. However, when one society encounters another and another set of laws, pressing questions emerge. Since Objectivity is impossible relative to humanity, how this ‘gray zone’ is overcome is through other methods, such as economics, war, and so on.¹⁰
Law is a more concrete and substantive study or morality than Ethics. Of course, what a society decides will be the law is relative to what the society thinks is right, but has Ethics truly ever helped a society write laws? Did not Rome, the Ottoman Empire, etc. exist before Kant and Locke? Isn’t it more so our ‘gut’ which dictates the laws we write, as Kant’s ‘gut’ was probably how he determined which premises to defend in The Groundwork? Doesn’t Ethics follow our ‘gut’, not the other way around? Ethics may help us articulate our ‘gut’, as it may also confuse us, but it isn’t Ethics that (initially) determines what a society passes into a law; rather, it’s Anthropology and Ontology, for these are the studies through which people determine what constitutes their ‘gut’ and why.
If I ask ‘does man have unalienable rights?’, I’m asking an Ontological and Anthropological question tied to the question ‘what is man?’. I may think I’m asking an Ethical question, but I’m only doing so secondarily. If I ask ‘is murder wrong?’, the answer is contingent upon what I think ‘humanity is’ (such as ‘a being with a right to life’). Again, the question is Ontological and only Ethical secondarily. Law emerges from Ontology; Ethics is what we call this thought process retrospectively.
Questions like ‘is murder wrong?’ and ‘should we tax the rich?’ are important questions and should be asked, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that these questions are more Anthropological and Ontological than they are Ethical. It is by grasping the being of things, which is particular and concrete rather than hypothetical and abstract, that these tough questions can best be surmounted. As C.S. Lewis taught, for the sake of second things, first things should be first.
But can we ever know ‘what is man’? Can Ontological questions ever be answered? No, not Objectively, but we most certainly can write down a definition in a dictionary. Dictionaries are the social contract at the root of all societies. The OED is a Declaration of Independence.
Absolutely. But that’s all we have. If you want to study Ethics, it’s sensible to read a dictionary. You very well may learn more about the moral life from the OED than from The Groundwork.
Are the people who write dictionaries God?
First, they can only be like God if God Exists, and second, they’re ‘God-like’, as are the people who write laws. As what we call ‘unlawful’ is what goes against the law, so what is immoral is what goes against our definition of human beings.
How do we decide that definition?
In the same way we decide laws: (some) people vote on it.
Why do we vote the way we do and how?
Everyone has a different answer, especially the religious. There is no Objective Basis (at least which humanity can fully conceptualize) for discrediting any of them, nor is there an objective basis, for this step comes before any ‘game’ is established (it being the step that determines what ‘game(s)’ society play(s)).
Why do we decide on the definition that we do?
It depends on whatever is most ‘fitting’. For now, all that can be said for sure is that ‘something’ emerges organically through time. In light of the thought discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose on Hume and Karl Popper, the fact that a certain principle, set of laws, notion of ethics, etc. has passed the tests of tradition, history, and time gives us ‘reason to believe’ in them even if they are ultimately wrong (keep in mind that certainty is mostly impossible, only confidence) — that the law is like the Law, goodness like Goodness, ‘(just) enough’ to practice them (though not necessarily to accept them thoughtlessly). Additionally, without a ‘common life’ to defer to, we lack a foundation for our worldview, and rationality will devour itself — but more on that at another time.
Is that ‘something’ the ‘right’ answer?
It’s neither right nor wrong (that being an abstracting dichotomy): it just exists. Ethics can make that existence harder to realize, cutting us off from it via dichotomies, abstractions, ‘what ifs’, etc. In this sense, as long as it doesn’t make us less creative, the Un-Ethical life can be better.
Humility helps Ethics. If it is recognized that Ethics is best understood as Ontology, Ethics will move towards clearer definition and meaningfulness. Whenever the river of Ethics crosses with the river of Ontology, Ethics achieves greater meaningfulness, but when these rivers part, Ethics again loses its definition. The sooner it is recognized that these rivers always belong together, the sooner Ethics will stop oscillating in and out of meaning.
If those in Ethics understand they are (im)moral, they will have a groundwork from which to engage with the real world and ontology. Then, students of Ethics will be able to make a difference. In recognizing that we are all (im)moral, we are all better equipped to live with it.
¹Ethics is a study that vanishes without frameworks and/or dichotomies. To touch on “Inception, Dichotomies, and Freedom”, the moment you begin thinking and talking about ethics, you place yourself within given dichotomies like ‘right and wrong’, when in fact we’re all ‘right/wrong’. One could say that though we don’t help children in Africa, we aren’t ‘actively’ hurting them, and therefore it cannot be said we are immoral toward these children. This would fall in line with “Inception, Dichotomies, and Freedom”, but is the value of another person really contingent upon whether you choose to interact with that individual? Are you really morally excused as long as you’re ignorant? If so, education is terrible for ethics, yet Ethics is an educational study.
As it is the case that before I ask you ‘are you worried?’ you aren’t worried and yet answering ‘I wasn’t worried’ doesn’t accurately describe your previous state, to say ‘you’re immoral’ doesn’t accurately describe your being ‘toward’ the children you do not help. Yet saying you’re moral doesn’t do it either. You’re (im)moral, and yet saying that doesn’t quite capture it either. You’re only (im)moral in the context of Ethics; outside that framework and it’s dichotomies, you just exist. Does that existence have moral weight? This is a bad question: it’s neither moral nor immoral. It exists.
This being the case, Ethics divides us from our existence in order to give us a game of hypothetical scenarios, by the end of which none of us achieve morality.
²Allusion to the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
³If the person is suicidal and is ‘darkly saying’ ‘hit me with your car’, the driver is only immoral to not do so if he or she agreed to this rule or ‘social contract’. Since though, the ‘darkly speaking’ suicidal person doesn’t say anything, it is doubtful the driver will have an opportunity to ‘read’ this rule. Therefore, unable to ‘read the rules’, per se, participants in the ‘game’ have to guess what the rules are. Since it is unlikely that a given person wants to commit suicide, it is better, when the rules are unclear, to assume a given person doesn’t want to die (which is a fair assumption to make if you yourself don’t want to die nor want others to want themselves to perish) (considering this, one can use Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ as a test for determining rules, though not necessarily as a Divine Law). If, though, someone says ‘kill me’, whether this is moral to do, upon agreeing to these terms, depends on whether the person really means it, if other rules don’t contradict this one, the particularities of the situation, etc. — variables which only participants involved can know. (Keep in mind that no matter what the participants choose, they’re still all (im)moral.)
3.1 Does this mean the ethical is determined by one’s capacity to articulate? In a sense, yes. If someone asks you in Chinese ‘are you from America?’ and you say ‘yes’, misunderstanding the person and thinking he or she asked ‘are you from Italy?’, though you didn’t lie relative to your interpretation, you did lie relative to what the person actually said. The same can be said about the law: if a law is hard to interpret and a person interprets it one way and follows that interpretation and ultimately breaks the actual law as a result, the person is unethical relative to what the law actually says, yet ethical relative to what the reader thought the law said.
Is the ethical contingent upon what one says then? In a sense, yes. If someone never tells me about children suffering in Africa and I never help them, I am immoral relative to the actual world, yet moral relative to my idea of the world. In sum, I am (im)moral. Likewise, if one agrees to a ‘game’ the person misunderstands and acts morally relative to his or her interpretation, the person is still immoral relative to the ‘game’ itself, and so (im)moral in sum.
3.11 If this makes the ethical seem arbitrary, it is important to remember that, relative to each given situation, the ethical is objective and non-arbitrary. This doesn’t mean though that there can’t be mistakes, as a person can accidentally kill someone (even when that person was ‘darkly saying’ ‘don’t kill me’). Mistakes are inevitable in any ethical system. The question isn’t if there will be mistakes, but what is the gravity of a given mistake, if the one who committed it meant to, if the mistake was an honest one, etc. — questions which only the participants in a given situation can determine.
3.2 The rules of a ‘game’ don’t necessarily follow from the wants of the participants. If a child asks a parent ‘can you take me to the mall?’ and the parent says ‘no’ because that would contribute to spoiling the child, the parent acts morally. The parent would only act immorally if the parent said ‘yes’ and then didn’t take the child. Yet, if a parent says ‘yes’ and then realizes doing so will contribute to spoiling the child and changes his or her mind, the parent acts both immorally and morally (and (im)morally in sum). The parent should have thought through his or her answer before saying ‘yes’, and for this mistake, the parent cannot avoid being (im)moral. Mistakes have consequences. Yet, whether taking the child to the mall really would contribute to spoiling that child depends on the particular situation, and so only the participants are equipped to decide what is best. It could be the case that not taking the child to the mall is immoral, since the child really needs to go. It depends, though that isn’t to say there isn’t an objective ethic between those involved.
3.3 Though you may act immorally if a girl asks you to kill her, you say ‘I will’, and then don’t (for you lie), this doesn’t mean you should be punished or that this immoral act won’t lead to a moral consequence. It depends on the particular circumstance.
3.4 ‘Don’t stab me’ is an obvious, unstated rule between friends. If I say ‘I didn’t know’ after stabbing my friend, I’m lying to myself or denying what I ‘know’. This ‘knowing’ — this voice within — is loud. The act of stabbing my friend is also against the law. However, it’s not against the law necessarily because of the silent rule or ‘voice within’; rather, it happens to be both immoral and unlawful at the same time (though whether one causes the other cannot be established).
Of course, it’s possible that a child could kill a friend not ‘knowing’ that it’s wrong (say if the parent failed to train the child), and that situation would have to be treated unto itself in particular — it shouldn’t be blurred with when two adults attack one another who have been brought up in a civil society. No particularities should be conflated.
3.5 Morality and justice are determined by whether ‘the best flute players get the best flutes’, to reference Aristotle, for a just world is one in which people ‘get what they are due’, as determined by their essential natures. The end of things, which is relative to the definition of things, determines what constitutes ‘the right thing to do’, and so what constitutes justice. The just and the good are inevitably bound up. We consider just what we consider good, and check and balance the just and the good with one another. If we don’t think something is good, we do not consider it just (or vice-versa); at best, we consider it a ‘necessary evil’. According to Aristotle, if any other variable is used to determine ‘who gets the best flutes’, other than ‘who is the best flute player’, an injustice is committed. This isn’t so that the best music is made, but because flutes are ‘for being played well’. It is beside the point if others enjoy the music or not. In this sense, Aristotle isn’t Utilitarian.
It could be argued that one will never become ‘the best flute player’ if the person never gets a flute in the first place, and because of this Aristotle argues for the necessity of society. To Aristotle, humanity requires a society to fully flourish and to cultivate character, and also in order to create a space where individuals can get good at flute playing, thereby creating a way to determine ‘who gets the best flutes’. Aristotle claims society and law must cultivate goodness and character, or societies are no different from alliances, laws no different from contracts.
There is no such thing as a human without a society, according to Aristotle. Without society, humans are either beasts or gods. Furthermore, what constitutes justice cannot be determined, for a space isn’t created in which it can be determined what should be distributed to who (either by government or the market). In other words, without society, no one can ‘get good at flute playing’, so it cannot be decided ‘who gets the best flutes’.
Distinct from Consequentialism, ‘teleological ethics’, as has been described, is the nature of the rules which ‘games’ tend to entail. It is when participating in a given ‘game’ that we can determine the ‘teleological ethics’ of that ‘game’, for to learn through doing is to acquire an awareness and discernment of particulars. It is only ‘in particulars’ that we can determine the essential nature of given things and so ‘the right thing to do’ with and to those given things.
Since good is relative, justice must be teleological, and rights and distribution must be pegged to what ‘fits’. In a given ‘game’, it can be determined what ‘fits’ and so what is ‘the right thing to do’. However, what constitutes justice in one ‘game’ doesn’t necessarily constitute justice in another. What is teleologically ethical is found in, and bound to, the particular.
Considering all this, what is ‘just’ and ‘good’ are anthropological and ontological questions.
3.51 Keep in mind that there can be unjust laws and unlawful justices, as there can be bad laws and bad justices. Just because something is just or good relative to the society doesn’t mean is just or good relative to human nature. To Aristotle, when a society makes laws that contradict humanity, the society acts unjustly and should be corrected.
3.52 Children have to be educated out of teleological ethics, perhaps because children naturally understand ‘the game’ of particular situations and aren’t so prone to generalize or universalize. Though they have vivid imaginations, they’re not as prone to abstract. Perhaps imagination helps one be concrete?
3.53 The very fact that children have to be educated out of teleological thinking is evidence that teleological thinking, in contrast to other ethical systems, is ‘fitting’ for humans. Furthermore, this being the case, it would be ethical, in line with teleological ethics, for humans to ascribe to teleological ethics. Few, other ethical systems, if any, are able to overcome the question of whether it is just to accept it over another system (such as Kant’s), or whether it is just to accept the system by its own terms of what constitutes justice and morality. Teleological ethics is axiomatic, for teleological ethics is ethical by its own standards. It is a complete system.
3.54 If children are naturally teleological, children are more naturally ethical than adults.
3.55 If children are naturally teleological, then teleological ethics doesn’t have to be learned from an Ethics class. This being the case, “(Im)morality” avoids hypocrisy, because Aristotle’s system can be learned simply by paying attention to the ‘games’ which surround a person. Children seem to reason teleologically not after reading Aristotle, but after being born.
3.56 The ‘gut’, which seems to naturally know which rules are ‘fitting’ (relative to given ‘games’), is childish. It is silenced by thinking and education (see “On Thinking and Perceiving” and “The Creative Concord”).
⁴Whether a person knows the rules of a ‘game’ doesn’t change that there are rules. Even if the rules are in a language you don’t understand (say Chinese), that doesn’t change the fact that there are rules. If you break them, you break them. Now, if the rules aren’t obvious (say your friend doesn’t want you to call her right now because she’s thinking about something), it is doubtful that your friend would be angry with you for breaking them. If someone yells at me because I ‘do the wrong thing’ but what constitutes that violation wasn’t obvious, my friend would be acting immorally to yell at me, for a given rule between us (probably unspoken) is ‘don’t yell at me (when unjustified) — only yell at me when it directs me toward the good’. Just because you break a rule doesn’t mean any given consequence is justified: it’s relative to the clarity of the rules and their severity, which only the participants can know.
⁵So where does this ‘knowing’ come from? It’s hard to say. You, it seems. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s present. What if the ‘knowing’ of two people contradict one another (who are participating in the same ‘game’)? That’s why we have laws. What if laws override the human dignity of individuals? Just because something is a law doesn’t mean it’s a good law, though it’s ‘good’ relative to the state. This is why it can be wise to have an amendment process. However, even if a law isn’t a good one, it’s still the law. Therefore, elections have consequences.
⁶This isn’t to say that one will immediately ‘know’ what should or shouldn’t be done when it comes to deciding, for example, whether a rapist should receive the death penalty, only to say that the person can conclude what should be done if he or she puts his or her mind to it. Whether this decision is ultimately ethical can only be determined relative to the ‘game’ which the decision is made within, which only those involved can determine. Outsiders must remain humble (but not necessarily passive). If an injustice is done, outsiders can intervene, but they will be justified to do so only to the degree that they fully enter into the ‘game’ at hand and understand the decision by the proper context. It will also be important for the interveners to remember that they too are (im)moral lest pride ruins their discernment.
Furthermore, there can be situations in which there is no superior solution, only trade-offs, as there can be situations in which either choice entails immorality. However, recognizing that one is always (im)moral can help an individual make a decision in such a situation, rather than be frozen by uncertainty (which Ethics classes can cause).
6.1 The ‘gut’ seems to be a teleological conviction confirmed by reasoning relative to relevant particularities. It is our innate, child-like capacity to recognize what is ‘fitting’, though it’s limited to the particular.
6.2 Even if we don’t ‘know’ what to do when we encounter an ethical dilemma or ‘game’ with unclear rules, going with what we ‘know’ is our only option, since Ethics cannot help us determine what is ‘fitting’ (only those involved in a game can know what is involved, and so ‘know’ what is ‘fitting’). This isn’t to say Ethics cannot help us develop helpful, creative thinking, only that Ethics cannot give us the answers directly.
⁷The fact I can say ‘rape’ and not scream proves a split between experience and expression. If words and experiences weren’t significantly different phenomena in of themselves, no one could talk about true horrors. Because of this split, what is found to be Ethical is done separate from what is experienced, where the ethical is determined. This means Ethics is abstract relative to ethics.
7.1 ‘Rape’ isn’t always wrong because it is universally wrong, but because it is wrong in every particular situation that it arises in by definition of what it is: the violation of an ‘I’. It is not possible for someone to want their ‘I’ violated, because a self isn’t violated by what a self wills (though that isn’t to say a self can’t will harm against itself). If a self doesn’t want to be violated, as a self mustn’t want by definition, then the rule ‘don’t violate me’ is ‘darkly spoken’ by every individual. The same can be said of ‘murder’ (as defined apart from ‘kill’ or ‘hunt’).
7.2 Many things that are against the law are phenomena that are, by definition, wrong or that are almost always wrong (though not necessarily always wrong). We can never say that something is ‘universally wrong’, only that ‘something is wrong in every particular situation it occurs in’. Likewise, we cannot establish a natural law. As Karl Popper claimed we accept something as a natural law until it is falsified, we should do the same with laws. Yet, just because a natural law proves false in one instance doesn’t mean it is always false, only that it was false in that instant. The same applies to laws and ethics. As it is the case that an instant in which gravity doesn’t work doesn’t prove that gravity never works or won’t work in every proceeding moment of time, an instant in which theft, for example, is moral doesn’t mean that theft is never immoral or will never be immoral again.
⁸The reason Consequentialism, as a moral philosophy, is wrong is because consequences and their results are different events. There is no ‘law of causality’, only a ‘Law of Temporal Non-Contradiction’ (as expounded upon in “On Words and Determinism”). A particular event and the particular consequences of that event must be judged separately (assuming judgment is possible).
⁹If we had the most power, yes.
¹⁰Ultimately, if it comes to human rights violations, the debate will become about what is ‘fitting’ for humans, which is relative to what constitutes human nature. If it comes to economic issues, ‘what works?’ will be the final question. As with ‘games’, the answer varies and cannot be universalized.