DOIN' WHAT COMES NATUR'LLY: TOWARD A HUMANIST THEORY OF ETHICS

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Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2003 - Published in Australian Humanist Autumn 2003 – All Rights Reserved

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DOIN' WHAT COMES NATUR'LLY: TOWARD A HUMANIST THEORY OF ETHICS

  1. 1. DOIN WHAT COMES NATURLLY TOWARD A HUMANIST THEORY OF ETHICS by Dr Ian Ellis- Jones Published in Australian Humanist Autumn 2003What is "good"? What is "right"? How should human beings behavetoward others? These questions are not just the stuff of religion. Indeed,they belong most properly to the realm of ethics, and Humanism is, at thevery least, concerned with ethics and ethical conduct. However, is it at allpossible to speak meaningfully of anything being "good" or "right" in a so-called postmodern world?Most theories of ethics, in particular, those based on religion, are normative, that is, theyare concerned with what human beings supposedly ought to do. All such theories arefundamentally flawed, being guilty of moralism, subjectivism, pragmatism and whatProfessor John Anderson of the University of Sydney used to refer to as "relativistconfusions". The latter term refers to illogical confusion about "qualities" and "relations",that is, the qualitative question, “Is X good?”, is wrongly confused or amalgamated withrelational questions about Xs being wanted, or supported, or being brought about byhuman beings.What is required, and what Humanism offers, is a positive, objective, realistic, non-moralistic, non-prescriptive, secular theory of ethics, but I would first like to refer tosome of the more common theories of ethics that are clearly flawed and unacceptable. FLAWED THEORY No. 1. Something is "good" or "right" if it is of such a kind as to evoke the approval or admiration of the majority of people.There are a number of problems with such a theory. First, it totally avoids the realquestion of what is "good" or "right", with its self-serving democratic (whatever that
  2. 2. Page 2means) appeal to whatever meets with widespread approval or admiration. However,we cannot possibly say that the majority and not the minority is necessarily right aboutany particular issue unless we have first considered the issue in question. If, forexample, a majority of people is in favour of a military strike against Iraq, does thatmake it “good” or “right”? Intuitively we know that such an approach, with itseffervescent appeal to and reliance upon public opinion polls, cannot be the correct one.For one thing, the theory rules out as literally meaningless any attempt to alter so-calledmajority belief by moral argument.Furthermore, how are we to determine what constitutes the majority, and what aboutchanges in attitudes over time? And are the views of a minority necessarily "wrong"and to be dismissed out-of-hand? Of course, not. FLAWED THEORY No. 2. Something is "good" or "right" if the person who uses the word has or tends to have a feeling or attitude of a certain kind about what that person pronounces "good" or "right".In other words, if you think it is “good” or “right”, or feel “deep down” that it is, well, it is!The war cry of the 1960s, still very much with us. “There are no absolute values …Everything is relative.” Well, there may be no absolutes, but that does not necessarilymean that there are no objective standards. Objectivity is something altogetherdifferent.Theory No. 2 is pure subjectivism, pragmatism and relativism. Two people would nevermean the same thing when they pronounced something good, since either would justmean, "That is approved (disapproved) of by me". Indeed the same person would notnecessarily, if ever, mean the same thing by an ethical judgment on two differentoccasions.Furthermore, if ethical judgments are simply about our own actual feelings or attitudes,why should we ever invoke, as we constantly do, their likely consequences for others,which is certainly not evidence about our own feelings or attitudes?
  3. 3. Page 3 FLAWED THEORY No. 3. Something is "good" or "right" if an impartial, objective bystander - "reasonable person" - would adjudge it to be "good" or "right".This theory has enormous appeal to judges and lawyers generally, who constantlyinvoke the so-called "reasonable person" test in legal decision-making in the largelymisguided belief that such a person actually exists in the real world. In law, the"reasonable person" is a notional (that really means fictitious!) person who is capable ofreasoning, and who does so appropriately with the knowledge of all relevant objectivefacts.But what can "impartial", "objective" or "reasonable" mean here, in the context of TheoryNo. 3? It is equivalent to saying that something is "good" or "right" when it is approvedby somebody who only approves what is really "good" or "right" (for the so-calledreasonable person could do nothing but that, otherwise he or she would not be"reasonable"). This is obviously circular, and altogether unsatisfactory except to someblack-letter lawyers of whom, regrettably, there are far too many in existence. FLAWED THEORY No. 4. Something is “good” or “right” if it has satisfying consequences (“works”) for a person or persons.There it is again. Plain, old-fashioned pragmatism. However, a thing has satisfyingconsequences BECAUSE it is “good” or “right”. It is not “good” or “right” by reason of ithaving satisfying consequences (whatever that means). Indeed, a thing might still be“good” or “right” EVEN IF it does not have satisfying consequences. Enough said.Good night, William James. FLAWED THEORY No. 5. Something is "good" or "right" if it (a) promotes the most pleasure and/or causes the least pain, or (b) fulfils peoples preferences without frustrating
  4. 4. Page 4 the preferences of others, or (c) satisfies our or ones desires in the long run.These are all various forms of utilitarianism, and there are enormous problems withthem all, just as there were with the moral pragmatism of Theory No. 4. What is meantby "pleasure" and "pain", and how does one measure them (assuming they can bequantified at all)? It is trite to say that what gives one human being pleasure may wellbe entirely painful to others. Are we to once again engage upon some exercise indemocracy, and count heads? Can preferences be ranked and weighed in the balance,especially as regards others? Who will keep score of all the supposed preferences, andfor how long? And how "long" is the "long run"? It is all impractical and unworkable. FLAWED THEORY No. 6. Something is "good" or "right" if it is in conformity with evolutionary development.At first glance this sounds appealing, especially to Humanists, with its salutary appeal tohuman evolution. However, the theory doesnt really take us anywhere. After all,whatever happens can be said to be in accordance with evolutionary development,otherwise it could not happen at all. Worse still, we can end up with some perniciousform of Social Darwinism, not to mention economic rationalism and the moreundesirable aspects of globalisation. Be careful. FLAWED THEORY No. 7. Something is "good" or "right" if it is commanded or required by X (X being God/Buddha/Jesus Christ/the Pope/ the Bible/the Koran, or whoever or whatever).“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Really?This theory - and there are a great number of variations of it - amalgamates the twootherwise distinct notions of "being good" and "being required/commanded". If weought to do X because we are commanded or required by someone or somethingsupposedly in or of "authority", that can only mean that we are commanded or required
  5. 5. Page 5by X to obey the commands or requirements of X.That is not a theory of ethics at all, for if "good" or "right" is whatever is commanded orrequired by someone or something supposedly in or of "authority", who or which, ofcourse, only commands or requires what is "good" or "right", the most that we have isan arbitrary and meaningless tautology.More significantly, it is not possible to argue logically from the fact that becausesomething is commanded or required - irrespective of who or what commands orrequires it - to a value judgment that what is commanded or required is "good" or "right"or that it is morally right to obey the command or comply with the supposedrequirement.There are a great many other so-called theories of ethics, but, for the most part, theyare all combinations or variations of some or all of the above. So, is there a Humanisttheory of ethics that is positive, objective, realistic, non-moralistic, non-prescriptive andsecular? In my view, there is, and it may be expressed as follows: A HUMANIST THEORY OF ETHICS. Something is "good" or "right" if it is objectively "good" or "right".At first glance, this theory appears to be circular just like some of the flawed theoriesreferred to above, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is we as humanbeings are acquainted with certain things directly by experience (eg the colour "red").We know sufficiently what "good" or "right" is by the experience of apprehending "good"or "right" things, as to see a red rose is also to see what redness is. "Goodness" or"rightness" is there to be recognised, as an occurrence in time and space ... as a fact. Itis something with which we have long been in certain ways acquainted.As AH editor Rosslyn Ives pointed out in her challenging article, "How Shall We Live?An Exploration of Humanist Ethics" (AH, Autumn 2002), the criterion for a "good" or a"bad" action is the objective effect of that action on human well-being. Whateverimproves human well-being or decreases human misery is "good" or "right"; whateverreduces well-being and increases human misery is "bad" or "wrong".
  6. 6. Page 6Human well-being is something that is palpably discernible and objective. Indeed, it canbe assessed and appreciated in terms of adequate food, clean water, clean air,ecological sustainability, reasonable housing, good health, fair education, and so forth.There may be some argument about what is "adequate", "reasonable" and "fair", butthere can be little or no argument about what improves human well-being or decreaseshuman misery in the sense described above.I wish to point out that we are not talking utilitarianism here ... pleasure, pain,happiness, personal preferences, and so forth. We are talking about actions andconsequences of actions that are universal and the same for all human beings. Wemust simply “look and see”.In this theory of ethics, the “goodness” or “rightness” of a thing is not dependent upon orconstituted by being liked or wanted or believed in, for, as Professor Anderson pointedout on so many occasions, NOTHING is constituted by, nor can it be defined orexplained by reference to, the relations it has to other things.Here we have a theory of ethics that is objective and realistic, and which altogetheravoids the "relativist confusions" of most of the other so-called theories of ethics whichspeak in terms of what we ought to do. We are to do, not what is commanded orrequired, not what others think is "good" or right", not even what we ourselves think is"good" or "right" nor what supposedly accords with the genetic theory of naturalselection. We are to do that which is objectively "good" or "right", that which isintrinsically "good" or "right", that which has the natural quality "good" or "right". Inshort, in the words of songwriter Irving Berlin, from the musical play Annie Get YourGun, we are to do "what comes naturlly" in the sense just described.In my respectful opinion, this is the only satisfactory basis for a Humanist theory ofethics. -oo0oo-

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