THE FUTILITY OF ETHICAL THEORY
THE FUTILITY OF ETHICAL THEORY
D. R. Khashaba
This paper was originally intended as an examination of the limits of ethical theory but turned into a rambling excursion into moral philosophy and ethics. Hence its rather amorphous character. I take my start from two propositions: (1) Moral pronouncements are not demonstrable rational judgments. (2) Moral pronouncements are not verifiable empirical statements.
To elucidate and justify these two propositions I will begin with an outline of Socrates’ philosophical outlook, which I see as an insightful rationale of all moral philosophy. I will also give a partial account of Plato’s philosophical outlook aimed particularly at clearing certain prevalent distortions and misunderstandings of Plato’s work. I will then say something about the nature of theory in general and then see where all that leaves ethical theory.
Socrates’ philosophical outlook is grounded in the insight that human beings live, strictly speaking, in a world of their own creation, a world of ideas and ideals. That is what characterizes us as humans, distinct from all other animal species. All our conscious action is governed by ideas, aims, beliefs, evaluations, true or false, good or corrupt. As such our whole worth is in the mind or soul that is the home and fount of those ideas and ideals. Our wellbeing is in a healthy soul (mind, psuchê, nous). All so-called particular goods are means to some end. The final end is the understanding or wisdom that is the character of a wholesome soul or mind. (See for example the didactic conversations with the lad Clinias in the Euthydemus.)That is the special excellence of a human being, the specific human virtue, aretê, the peculiar human function, dunamis. The soul prospers by doing what is morally right and is harmed by doing what is morally wrong. (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a striking allegory of this moral insight.)
Socrates distinguished the ideas that are born in the mind and are to be found nowhere but in the mind from the things in the outer world. The former are intelligible; the latter are perceptible. Plato, extending the distinction beyond the moral sphere, referred to the intelligible ideas by the term eidos (form) or idea (not to be confused with the English ‘idea’, at any rate not in the Lockean or Humean sense). In his youthful exuberance Plato sang the praises of the Forms; in the Phaedo he overemphasized their immutability and permanence; in the Phaedrus he gave them a celestial home; in the Meno he tells a tale told ‘by priests and priestesses’ affirming that the forms come with the soul from another world. All of this is sheer poetry. In the first part of the Parmenides he shows that the ‘separateness’ of the intelligible forms cannot be maintained. In the Sophist he shows the error of ascribing to the forms absolute immutability and permanence. Like all things intelligible and perceptible their reality is none other than their activity, dunamis. Aristotle took Plato’s poetical flights too literally and burdened all subsequent philosophy with the fiction of Platonic eternal forms existing separately in a world of their own. Plato in the Symposium represents the ascent to the vision of absolute Beauty as a journey of the soul, wholly within the soul (201a ff.). In the Republic the highest philosophical insight is attained when the philosopher strives to grasp that which truly is by that in her or him which is most akin to what truly is (490a). It is not my intention to give here a full account of Plato’s philosophy, but I had to touch on this aspect since certain ethical theorists speak of an eternal world of truths or values existing separately. They have every right to their theory but it is wrong to ascribe it to Plato. Plato has been misunderstood and his philosophy grossly distorted because he is read as a theorist whereas he is fundamentally a poet. I have been harping on this in all my writings and will not further amplify on it here.
Ethical terms are creations of the mind, are ideal creations, are creative insights. The question of the subjectivity or objectivity of moral ideals and principles is enveloped in multiple confusions of thought and language, confusions compounded by the prevalent empirical identification of the real with the objective. Once this view is embraced it is impossible to find any reality in moral ideals and values or any ultimate ground for them. We can only (1) on the one hand give a descriptive account – historical, anthropological, etc. – of the rise of specific rules and regulations, and/or (2) on the other hand find objective justifications – hedonistic, utilitarian, theological – for such rules and regulations. All such empirical derivations and all such justifications are extra-moral, irrelevant to the essence of morality.
It denigrates morality to say that our moral sentiments are grounded in emotion. When Socrates says we should never return harm for harm (the Crito, tne Gorgias) that amounts to the creation of a moral ideal. Living up to the ideal flowers in an emotional state yet the emotion is not the cause or ground of the ideal but the issue of the ideal.
Plato in the Sophist likens the ever-raging war between materialists and idealists to the mythological battle of the Gods and the Giants (245e-246e). Socrates in the Crito says that those who hold and those who reject the maxim that it is never right to harm anyone can have no common ground (49c-d). But let us foolishly attempt the hopeless task. We idealists say that the ‘reality’ of the physical world is a sham. Heraclitus saw that all things in the natural world are in flux: they never are but are always becoming, as Plato puts it. Real are the Logos and the unfathomable soul. Plato saw that the immutable, fleeting external world is a shadow. This is not to deny the ‘existence’ of the outer world as another prevalent misunderstanding of Plato has it. When the idealist says the external world is an illusion this is the philosopher’s version of “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. For Plato the ideas in the mind and the mind itself are what is real. Kierkegaard said that Truth is subjectivity. Subjectivity, I say, is our inner reality, is all the reality we know, and is the fount of all that is real for us.
The historical-anthropological fact that moral values and rules have arisen in time and vary from time to time and from location to location is commonly taken to show that moral values and moral judgments are relative. Specific evaluations and specific rulings are certainly the product of particular time and particular place. And as I said earlier tribal, social, civil rules are not essentially moral. But when the moral sense takes over, when a tribesman cares for a wounded fellow-tribesman not only because the ethos of the tribe requires it but because, regardless of the conventional requirement, his heart goes out for the wounded person, then the act is a moral act and has absolute moral value. When Shelley’s Prometheus cries out, “It doth repent me … I wish no living thing to suffer pain” he at once attains a moral and a metaphysical status far above Zeus and far, far above Yahweh. The moral value is a subjective reality and subjective reality is metaphysical reality. In my philosophy metaphysical reality does not ‘exist’; it is not an objective actuality: this is what Plato variously terms alêtheia, to on, ho estin, ousia. It is not an entity, and that is what makes the notion of metaphysical reality difficult to grasp — it is not an entity but pure act, it is Plato’s phronêsis, or, in my terminology, it is intelligent creativity.
Metaphysical realities and moral realities do not ‘exist’ in a ‘spirit-like’ domain in a world beyond this world; they are real in the metaphysical reality of the subjective, they are eternal, not in extended time in this world or in another world, but in the momentary transcendence of the subject. This is the paradox that only the poets understand. In intelligent creativity, in deeds of love and in philosophical, poetical, and artistic creativity we are eternal not everlastingly but fleetingly. Poets and mystics have known this; among philosophers perhaps only Plato and Plotinus grasped it.
Moral values and principles issue from the integrity of the moral sense. Kant called this the moral will. In “Reasoning in Kant’s Ethical Works (in Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015) I wrote: “When Kant says that nothing is good absolutely but a good will and Socrates teaches that the only intrinsically good thing is a healthy soul, on the outside these seem to be different positions, but I see in them the same insight.” (The reader will notice that I often collate seemingly divergent philosophical positions. No one is truly philosophical if she or he does not see the unity of all genuine philosophical insight.)
Socrates nowhere says why we should act morally. He says that by doing what is morally right something in us (call it our soul or our inner reality) flourishes and by doing wrong it sickens. I say that it is improper even to call this a justification of morality. To justify morality is to negate morality. So what does it amount to? That Socrates finds his whole worth and value and meaning in, as he puts it, following reason; but when we try to find what following reason involves for Socrates, we find it exhausted in doing what makes our soul healthy and shunning what harms our soul. The arguments of the Socratic investigations are invariably circular: virtue is found to be wisdom (epistêmê) and wisdom is found to be virtue. That is the whole of morality: to find our good in a wholesome soul, or naively put, to find our good in being good. It is to elect a mode of life. This can be given various thought articulations. Kant says the only absolutely good thing is a good will. This says no more than that it is good to be good. When we seek to find a reason for goodness outside the goodness, whether the reason be divine will or utility, we infringe the autonomy of morality and it is no longer morality but self-seeking. This is the insight underlying Socrates’ pregnant question in the Euthyphro: “Is piety loved by the gods because it is piety, or is it piety because it is loved by the gods?” (10a).
In the Gorgias Socrates maintains that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong. Callicles lampoons him. In Book One of the Republic he leads Polemarchus to admit that it is never right to harm anyone. Thrasymachus angrily calls this nonsense. In either case Socrates argues at length but cannot win over his opponent. A moral judgment cannot be inferred rationally nor demonstrated logically. In “Reasoning in Kant’s Ethical Works”, already cited above, I affirm that Kant’s arguments in both the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and in the Critique of Practical Reason (1787) “prove nothing and serve no purpose. They are, to say the least, redundant.” Kant in the end grounds the Ideas of Pure Reason or Postulates of Practical Reason in faith, faith not justified by Pure Reason but ‘required’ by Practical Reason.
The role of reason in motivating moral action is secondary or ancillary. It only comes in where there is occasion for weighing alternatives or deliberating consequences. (In “Free Will as Creativity” – included in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009 – I insist that confusing free will with choice vitiates the discussion of the problem.) But the moral act itself is arational, is unreasoned. Specific moral maxims can be rationally justified within the framework of accepted values or principles. If I oppose abortion or euthanasia on the ground of the sanctity of life, my maxim is reasoned, but the principle of the sanctity of life itself is arational. You cannot by reasoning convince one who rejects it. Judgments and controversies relating to such question should not properly even be referred to as ethical; they are practical issues: juristic, legalistic, political, etc.
Psychology does not explain morality. Any ‘motives’ for ‘acting morally’ empty the act of all morality. The moral act is essentially autonomous and spontaneous. This is the significance of Kant’s Categorical Imperative which simply affirms and emphasizes the autonomy of the moral act. When the ‘imperative’ comes from outside the moral will it negates morality. The Mosaic Commandments have nothing to do with morality. They are social regulations necessary for the existence of any cohesive group. In the most primitive of tribes rules are observed to preserve peace and ensure cooperation. Such rules in and by themselves are not moral, but the orderly and peaceful milieu they foster is conducive to the flourishing of moral sentiment: amity, loyalty, caring. A mother’s care for her newborn babe is instinctive, but in a normal human mother it develops or fortifies a truly moral sentiment of love.
To my mind no view is more shallow than crude hedonism. That pleasure is the main drive for human action does not stand even to empirical examination, unless we so loosen the connotation of ‘pleasure’ to make it apply to equanimity or contented satisfaction at having reached one’s goal. Ask any athlete or any politician, not to say any scientist or poet or artist. With the exception of principled ascetics, we all welcome pleasure when it comes. Certain individuals may be addicted to certain types of pleasure. Such persons are diseased; in Aristotle’s wise phrase, they call for medication rather than edification; but even in their case pleasure may not be all they live for. If we want to specify the most fundamental drive of human action I think we can find no better than affirmation of self. The most mean may find that in rapaciousness; better characters may find it in ‘success’, in various achievements; the noblest characters find it in outgoing giving, in creative activity. Plato in the Symposium says that all living things desire immortality (Diotima’s speech), but where do they find immortality? At the lowest level in procreation; at a higher level in creativity. Goethe works the salvation of Faust by making him build bridges for the benefit of others. Achilles dies to affirm his ethos. The essence of it all is life-affirmation, for life itself is nothing but that, affirmation of life. Thus self-affirmation is not to be equated with selfishness, for the difference between the meanest and the noblest character lies in the expanse of the self. Altruism is not opposed to selfhood: it is essentially expansion of self. Egotism is constriction of self.
Human beings are not naturally selfish. Every one of us is necessarily self-centred, but sympathy and fellow-feeling are not only natural in humans but are also evident in many brutes. (I do mean sympathy and fellow-feeling in the brutes as in humans and not merely solidarity or gregariousness.) What brings out the manifestations of culpable selfishness are the complications of social life and the false values of competitiveness, pride, privilege, and the like. These false values and the pressures of ill-organized society corrupt us and blind us to the other. The only cure for this is the Socratic scrutiny of our ideas and ideals, our goals and values.
The differentiation between the worldly and the other-worldly attitude or mode of life is not fundamental. Except when it is based on a theological dogma that literally advocates giving up ‘worldly goods’ in expectation of reward in a future world, which at once makes it an unmoral position, except in that case worldliness and unworldliness or other-worldliness is a matter of temperament and personal choice. This is another area where Plato has been grossly misunderstood. The dictum that a philosopher practises death simply intimates that a genuine philosopher finds reality and value not in the things of the outer world but in the treasures of the soul. Jesus of Nazareth was not ascetic. Socrates was not an ascetic. He has even been charged with crude hedonism, which is a sample of the folly of unimaginative erudition. But I will not here digress into questions I have dealt with amply elsewhere.
Any exterior explanation or justification of a moral act makes it amoral. This is the gist of Kant’s much maligned insistence that only acts done from duty are moral. Kant’s formulation is unfortunate. Besides having given rise to much misunderstanding, it leaves out spontaneous acts of pure love. But the point of Kant’s dictum is to emphasize the essential autonomy of the moral act.
It is not practically possible to have a universally valid test for judging whether a particular act or even a particular maxim or rule is moral or amoral. For instance the rule “Do unto others what you would they do unto you” can be regarded as amoral if it is taken to aim at ensuring the effective working of inter-personal relations, but if it is meant to enjoin placing oneself in the place of the other and taking into account the feelings as well as the interests of the other, then I would see it as a moral maxim. Thus ‘normative ethics’, developing or articulating a set or system of rules can be mostly amoral. The laws enacted by the state can only be and should always be amoral, as it is not for the state to delve into the morals of individuals. Only a theocratic state presumes the right to doing that, and in so doing undermines morality.
Plato in the Phaedo condemns all ‘popular virtue’ as an exchange of pleasure for pleasure, pain for pain, fear for fear. The only proper exchange is of all things for wisdom (phronêsis). Only in the company of wisdom do we have true courage and temperance and justice. (Phaedo, 69a f.) This spells out the Socratic insight into the unity of all virtue and the identity of virtue with finding our proper good in a wholesome intelligent soul.
Of the special ‘Christian’ virtues – faith, hope, and charity – only ‘charity’ can be seen as a moral virtue; ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ as intended in Christian theology are requirements for salvation; as such they are maxims of expediency denuded of moral sense. Expediency is the carcass of morality. Outside the theological domain it is only with much explication and qualification that faith and hope can be admitted as virtues in the normal sense of the term.
Applied ethics is only practicable within an established system of commonly accepted values and principles. Its rulings are not moral judgments but empirical deductions. In deciding individual cases in issues of ‘applied ethics’ we face not only the conflict of various moral outlooks, but even within the scope of a commonly embraced moral outlook we may face the clash of different moral maxims or values. If we were living in a perfect world there would be no such clash or conflict, but we are living in a world drenched through and through with imperfection. In such a world we often encounter problem-issues that are not open to any clear-cut application of principle. It is in these cases that a morally alive person has tragically to bear the onus of appealing to her or his conscience, taking the plunge, and committing what for the moment seems to her or him the lesser wrong. (Conscience is another name for the moral sense. I prefer ‘moral sense since it is less open to the vagaries of occult interpretations.
What is a theory? A theory of Language for instance or of Truth? Such a theory erects a conceptual structure to shed intelligibility and lend coherence to a phenomenon or an experiential state. The conceptual structure, as an externally imposed pattern, can never exhaust the strictly endless manifestations of the phenomenon or encompass the unfathomable depths of the experience. To conceptualize is to create abstractions and distinctions: every abstraction and every distinction imposes an ad hoc workable fiction and comes loaded with intrinsic imperfection. Thus all theory falsifies its object and no theory can claim to be definitively true. Witness the literally endless squabbles and clashes of our erudite scholars over conflicting theories. They quarrel instead of acknowledging that each theory is an artificial representation from a particular viewpoint. In the field of physical theory, Wittgenstein brings this out lucidly in Proposition 6.341 of the Tractatus, which is too long to quote in full here.
We have to make a clear distinction between moral philosophy and ethics. A human being’s moral philosophy reflects the kind of life she or he lives, the kind of person she or he is or is supposed to be, whether by deliberate choice or by passively submitting to convention and the prevailing mores. Socrates and Plato had a moral philosophy yet neither of them had an ethical theory. Using the term loosely we may say that they had ethics but not ethical theories. Spinoza named his magnum opus Ethics but in substance that great book presents a moral vision but not an ethical theory. Kant had a noble moral philosophy but a botched theory of ethics that only serves to befog and disfigure his fine moral vision. (Using the term ethics loosely to cover moral philosophy is not conducive to clear thinking and should be avoided.)
There are two categories of ethical theory. The first poses the question: How does morality come about? The second asks: Why should we be moral? The ‘how’ question is empirical, it can be approached historically, anthropologically, sociologically, pedagogically, etc., and with each approach we can have enlightening accounts, that can however never be exhaustive or definitive, and in all cases they do not reveal or touch on the essence of morality. In other words, this is a scientific question which, like all natural investigation, has the prospect of endless but never final development. The first category of ethics is of a scientific nature yet it is not a unified science but a potentially proliferating group of scientific disciplines. Let me leave it at that.
The ‘why’question which is not open to empirical investigation is strictly unanswerable. Thus the second category of ethics is misguided when it thinks it can arrive at a rationally explicative theory. The moral sense, once we attain to it, is a metaphysical reality, and like all reality is an unfathomable mystery. We cannot explain it. Goodness, like Beauty, like Being, is unexplainable. Before these ultimate mysteries we can only stand in awe and intimate their reality in myth and parable and song. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Coleridge’s Rime o f the Ancient Mariner, are as good intimations of moral reality as any philosophical exposition.
As if the abstractedness of traditional ethical theory is not remote enough from the realities of life, philosophers today indulge in metaethics, theorizing the theory of ethics at one more remove from reality. The questions of ‘metaethics’, when meaningful and not merely empty jabbering with vacuous abstractions, are the normal questions of traditional ethical theory. What is called ‘normative ethics’ is only meaningful within an accepted moral outlook. It simply elucidates and explicates implications and consequences on the ground of that given outlook. A Hedonist and a Stoic have no common ground; any discussion between them is like one between a Chinese and a Spaniard neither of them speaking the language of the other. ‘Applied ethics’ is only a further particularization of ‘normative ethics’; it unfolds implications and consequences in specified areas or in relation to definite practical problems on the ground of an accepted morality. That is why controversies in the field of bioethics for instance can never be settled by reasoning. Debates about political issues also cannot be settled by rational argument. In all practical conflicts and clashes the only sane approach is for the different parties to be willing to be open to the outlook of the other and to compromise.
By all means let our scholars theorize about morality and call their theorizing ethical theory or metaethics. All that is good intellectual exercise. But it should be clear to us that none of that catches the essence of morality. We go to the heart of morality not in any theory but in the simple pronouncements of Socrates, of Gautama the Buddha, of the Sermon on the Mount, in the works of inspired poets and dramatists and novelists, in Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas, for the reality of moral experience is unfathomable, incomprehensible, inexhaustible, and will always be intimated anew in deeds of love and in works of creative intelligence.
January 31, 2016.